Since first climbing out of her bedroom window at age 14 to join the fabulously disenfranchised world of queers, junkies, whores, stars, deviants and geniuses she has become one of the most influential performers in the world. By fearlessly displaying her singular brand of feminist sexuality and personal conflict she has garnered countless fans worldwide with an emotionally and intellectually charged performance style. Internationally revered as writer, director and actress, she has influenced generations of artists around the world.
Penny Arcade Making Better Transcript
(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.
Chris: Well, Francis, this is episode seven of Making Better, and we’re featuring Penny Arcade.
Francis: Yeah, Penny is someone that I’ve loved listening to for many years. I think the first time I ever heard her was at Saint Mark’s Church on New Year’s eve, which is when—used to be like so many of greatest Beat artists and other poets would be there reading for the New year, and you’d kinda get the sense of where the world was at by listening to them all, and Penny really stood out. I remember at the time thinking, who is this person? And I’ve followed her through the years, and her performances and I find her take on the world extremely well-thought-out and visionary, and I think people will really enjoy her.
Chris: I agree. I think this is one of my favorite episodes so far, and it’s not often you get to talk to a real 60s radical anymore.
Francis: Not only that, but someone who was the type of a radical where they didn’t have to sort of apologize a lot for the naivete of their youth. A lot of what Penny has believed, she’s believed most of her life and I guess history’s borne it out.
Chris: So without further ado, let’s get on to our interview.
Chris: Penny Arcade, welcome to Making Better!
Penny: Oh, OK, hi! (laughs)
Francis: Hey Penny,
Penny: Hi, Francis
Francis: …I’m so exciting to spend some time talking with you now, and I think it would be great for our listeners if we could just start a little biographically…and maybe you could talk about where you came from, and …
Penny: OK. I’m first-generation American, I’m the first person in my family born in America. My mother’s family, who I was mostly raised with, are from Baslikata*, which is the Appalachia of Italy, it’s one of the very, very poorest parts of Italy and it’s a place where the people were fundamentally sharecroppers. So I come from people who were slaves not in the 17th century, but in the 20th century. The vast tracts of land were owned by the nobility, a nobility that did not live anywhere near where these lands were. So I have always been anarchic. As Judith Molina once said to me, “Penny, you’re an optimist, because you’re an anarchist, and all anarchists are optimists.” So yeah, do I think that the world could be a better place? Yes. Do I think that that’s gonna happen? No. Why? Because of human nature, and we’re living for the past, seriously, 30 years with the commodification of rebellion. So all these people who have 27,000 tattoos, they all have the same tattoo as everybody else, ‘cause they all want to be different like everybody else. They were gathering down at Occupy, and eating french fries from McDonalds. There’s a real schism in the intellectual life of Americans. Americans are not political people; they have a culture of being political, which mostly at this point buys down to buying Che Guevera t-shirts for their four-year-old children. This thing that everybody’s waiting for to happen, that’s really really bad, that everybody’s afraid is gonna happen—it’s already happened. OK? It’s already happened. So, for me, I don’t believe you can change the world, but I do believe you can change the world around yourself. I came up through the 60s, I was involved with Yippie!, which was the Youth International Party with Abby Hoffman. I was involved with Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers with Ben Morea, that did preach armed revolution, and at that point, in 1968, 1969, there was a radical left in this country. There hasn’t been a “Left” in this country, honestly, since when? Since the 60s. There’s no Left in this country. People have a lot of fantasies about their political involvement, but they don’t want to take a really hard look at what the real situation is, and the real situation is, take it to the streets. Listen, the last big demostration we had in New York, which was the one where the infantilized women with their little pussy ears—there were three cops at that demonstration. That’s how worried they were. Three cops at the whole demonstration!
Chris: In the old days, there’d be three cops just watching me.
Penny: Yeah. Exactly. So, you know, I think people are walking around, everywhere I go I hear people talking “oh, they’re talking truth to power, I was just talking truth to power this afternoon.” These people are seriously narcissistic fools. I mean, you don’t talk truth to power and win.
Chris: Nobody wants to go to jail.
Penny: Wells they definitely don’t want to go to jail, they also don’t want to be hit in the head. And the police do hit you in the head, you know.
Chris: I’ve personally been arrested 24 times in civil disobedience actions, so, I know the routine.
Penny: But we’re living in a period where there is such a fanciful idea that people have, that they’re being pro-active, meanwhile, how many states are already ratifying anti-abortion? And then everything’s fragmented, so culturally, what you might call the Left, is completely…
Chris: …people like Bernie Sanders, and AOC…
Penny: No, but what I’m even talking, I’m talking more about whether it is minorities, women, or what are now called “queers,” it’s all been micro-sliced. There is no coalition. And you cannot achieve anything without coalition. So, you have the Black Lives Matter people, which I try to connect them with class issues—they could care less about class issues. You know, everybody’s got their own thing, like all the gay people who are so ill-informed that they don’t realize that if we lose Roe v. Wade, we lose LGBT rights, because the ACLU wrote the gay liberation, I don’t know what you’d call it…contract, let’s call it, on the back of Roe vs. Wade, as unnatural acts. So that they used the unnatural so-called act of a women getting rid of a fetus from her own body, and they had it cover the unnatural so-called unnatural acts of same-sex sexuality. But people are oblivious to these things, and so people are only interested in their own little plot, happily digging away in their own little plot, whereas the right wing forms coalition with anyone. As long as you hate the rights of other people, you’re welcome to coalesce and be part of the coalition with the right. I mean, but you know this is not just happening in America, it’s happening world-wide, and we have been warned about this, not just since George Orwell, but all the way back to the beginning of the century with Brave New World. And people have not listened, because people don’t listen until it happens to them. I tried to do housing activism in this neighborhood of the Lower East Side in the mid-90s, and there were like twenty-seven million 20-year olds with multiple piercings and tons of tattoos lined up in the cafes of Avenue A…you couldn’t get them to one demonstration. But the second that they’re about to be evicted out of their building, suddenly they become interested in housing rights. And all of these things are the same, it’s the same thing with feminism. You know, the MeToo movement supposedly created this burst of flower of feminism, but feminism does not mean that you care what happens to you and your eight friends, it means that you care about what happens to all women. And the failure of feminism has always been the way women betray women, and women continually betray women.
Chris: The feminist movement started that way, with Sojourner being kicked out and Helen Keller being kicked out, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton being kicked out, all for raising issues of race or..
Penny: Right. …and class. Race and class.
Chris: Helen Keller was social justice.
Penny: Right. I don’t really know where it’s gonna go, because everything’s so fragmented now, it’s not like you’re gonna get any kind of real group of people…I mean, everybody wants Trump impeached, I’m like, Trump is not the problem! Pence is the problem—Trump has no values. Pence has tons of values and they’re all evil. We’re living in a world of disinformation, we’re living in a world of fragmentation, the promise of the internet failed…
Chris: I don’t think we can entirely conclude that. I think it is failing right now, but we don’t know where it will be in five years…
Penny: OK, but what I’m talking about is, the idea was that people would be connected. And the result is, that you used to be able to get more information from just walking down Avenue A, about what was happening in this neighborhood, than you can get now, with all of the social media that we have. Because of the algorithms and because of human nature. People want pleasure, people do not want to do anything that is uncomfortable. And when I talk about the failure of the internet, baby, fifteen years ago, if I was researching something, and with my clever mind where I could come up with multiple, multiple multiplying, over and over and over, every single one of them a closed door that you come to that’s another www-dot-zi-doc-dot something, that leads nowhere. There is a real failure to the internet, because the internet is not free. The internet is owned, and it is manipulated, and I’m not a programmer and I’m not a tech person. But I know, I’m a user, and I can tell when it’s impossible to get anywhere with the internet compared to what was going on before. And about five years ago, I was at the McDowell, doing a McDowell residency, and there was a wonderful young woman whose name I’ve forgotten now, who is a worldwide web activist, and she presented a program to, I don’t know, 40-50 artists who were gathered at McDowell, talking about what was really going on with the internet. Those people could care less—and these were supposed to be, you know, really investigative, artistic minds, right? And at the end, very very very, the talk was over and I just raised my hand and I said, “excuse me, how many people in the world are doing what you do?” She said, “oh, being activists for freeing the world wide web?” I said, yeah. She goes “oh, there’s probably about a hundred and fifty of us.”
Chris: We had Richard Stallman on the podcast as a guest, and he’s the leader of that movement.
Penny: Ok, so the point that I’m making is, the next thing that she said, “do you want to know how many people are employed by the forces of evil?” she said, “try five hundred thousand.” So the balance is really off. So before you can do anything about anything, you’ve got to face the true, real facts. You know, which means not just as a group, but individually. How far am I willing to go? What would I do? How much do I care? And I care about the working poor. I care about immigrants without papers. I don’t give a fuck about middle class people. As when the Matthew Sheppard demonstration happened—I can’t remember what year that was—and lots and lots of nice, well-meaning gays and lesbians went to the march and had their candlelit march, and then they were all completely freaked out when police on horseback started stampeding into them! You know? They were like “we don’t want a police state”—guess what? It is a police state! I’m not Miss Optimism here, but I am all for facing reality, and for what can we do, and I’m not sure about what we can do.
Francis: Could we talk about your life as an artist a little, too, because there would be a lot of people who aren’t…
Penny: Yeah, who aren’t familiar with my work. Like, everybody.
Chris: You’ve gotten to work with two of my heroes–
Penny: Yeah? Who are they?
Chris: Andy Warhol and Quentin Crisp.
Penny: Oh. OK, that’s interesting. Very, very diverse people.
Chris: But they were both profoundly interesting to me, so…
Penny: Yeah, well…everyone has their taste, don’t they? Right. Andy was a very interesting person, not that anybody could really experience really how interesting he was, because he was very introverted and alienated, I guess is what you’d say. He was a strange man in many ways. And Quentin Crisp was also a very odd person. I was very close to Quentin Crisp and I knew him very, very, very well, and he had an extraordinary intellect that, because of his—well, really, his belligerence—I mean, he really couldn’t hide what he was. For people listening who don’t know who Quentin Crisp was, he was an effeminate, gay Englishman who, at the end of his life, achieved a great deal of fame, one could say, because a film in the UK in 1975 brought the question of homosexuality into public discourse for the first time. It was called “The Naked Civil Servant,” and it was played on PBS, so it was not only in the UK and Europe but also in America. And Quentin became quite famous in his early seventies, and he was a brilliant, brilliant man. He was an aphorist, which means a person who comes up with one-liners, and an organic intellectual. He was quite, he had quite an extraordinary brain. But he was also very limited, because most of his life he was delegated to a very, very narrow social milieu. Because he was so effeminate, and because he could not hide what he was—as he said, “every closet door I knocked on, they said ‘not in here.’”
So, at any rate, my work, I started doing theatre…actually the first theatrical thing I ever did was, I somehow in 1967, when I was seventeen and first came to New York, I ended up with the Hog Farm. And the Hog Farm was a very famous commune in the 60s that roamed around America in busses, and they’re the people who fed everybody and did all the triage at Woodstock, so they’re famous for that. And I somehow knocked into these people as a homeless street kid might, in 1967, and they had a gig at the Electric Circus, which was a big performance place that catered mainly to Long Island teenagers and kids from the boroughs. And they were hired to be, like, professional hippies at this event, and I found myself unwittingly standing next to Wavy Gravy, also known as Hugh Romney, who in the 50s had been a pretty successful stand-up comedian, and then with Ken Kesey and these other west coast psychedelic people, he became Wavy Gravy and started the Hog Farm. And unbeknownst to me, I was standing next to him, and I guess he got this idea that he should put somebody up in the air over the crowd of kids who were dancing--Sly and the Family Stone were playing on stage—and he said, “we’re going to pick you up and we’re going to sail you over the heads of the people,” and I was like, “OK.” And I guess he chose me because I was small, and I went sailing over the heads of the people, and I think I’ve always had good instincts, I understand systems, so I tried to be very entertaining as I was sailing through the air, you know, not just be a lump of coal. And I ended up on the stage with Sly Stone and started dancing, and looked over at Sly Stone who was like, giving me super-dirty looks, like GET OFF THE STAGE, and I probably did the first stage dive in rock and roll history! I dived into the audience, and they sailed me back over the heads of all the people ’til I got to the very end and was dropped off. So that was my very first performance, and then not long after that, I was introduced to the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, which was the original glitter-glam rock’n’roll political theatre of the 60s that influenced everything from Hair to Rocky Horror to David Bowie. And the New York Punk scene—which I hate that term, “punk” because punk means somebody who challenges you to a fight and doesn’t show up—so I just was never “punk,” I’ve always been an outsider. Or in the 60s, when we didn’t want to be hippies, we said we were “freaks.” So there were freaks and hippies. So John (Vaccaro) who started the Playhouse of the Ridiculous really tuned in to the darkness that was in America that “Hippy is dead”—that was 1968, and they had a big funeral for the Hippy is dead in California, and also in the East Village, that was the fall of 67—either the fall of 67 or the fall of 68—was when Groovy and Linda were murdered in the East Village and then everything turned very dark. But Vaccaro was already—he was older, he was probably close to 40 in the late 60s—their manifesto is, “our situation is beyond the absurd, it is absolutely ridiculous.” So they were looking at the world as a place that had gone beyond the absurdity of Ionesco and the other people who were looking at modern life as a real degradation of the human spirit. And his theater was extremely political, he was the first person who had a rock’n’roll band onstage, and a lot of the people who came out of the Playhouse created what was called the first Punk scene, which was people like Ruby Lynn Rainer* and the Rednecks and Wayne County, who became Jane County, and he influenced the Dolls, the New York Dolls were influenced by Vaccaro…the Stilettos, which started with Elva Gentilly* and Debby Harry and then morphed into Blondie. So that’s kind of the milieu I come out of as a teenager. So if the theater that I was involved with in the 60s was about tearing down the fourth wall—between the public and the people on stage—then I grew up to tear down the other three walls. So I have made my own work since 1985, I started making my own work when I was 34, after performing for 16 years in other people’s work. And my work is political humanism, investigating the human condition, what it means to be human in 2019. My relationship is with the public, as opposed to with critics or with arts administrators, and it’s quite a miracle that I’m able to do my work all over the world, given that i make a lot people nervous. Not the audience so much, but certainly the gatekeepers, which is why most of your audience has never heard of me. Let’s put it this way: I’m not on Fresh Air, you know what I mean?
Francis: So would you consider yourself a performance artist, a poet, a…
Penny: Well, I am first and foremost a poet. And for people listening, there’s many ways of being a poet. So I didn’t write poetry for a very long time, because I was very insecure. I still have a great deal of lack of self-confidence and lack of security emotionally. I know it doesn’t sound, I don’t sound like an insecure person, but you can be a really smart insecure person. So I believe what I perceive. I’ve spent years honing my mind, through reading and argument, and listening to people who are smarter than me, and being around people who kicked my ass and didn’t let me have soft ideas. I live every day as a poet and always have since I was a child, meaning I go where the day takes me, and my investigation is into my place in the world, my place in this life. And originally I fell into being an experimental theater actress, that’s what I did with the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, that’s what I did with Andy Warhol. Andy asked me to become a Warhol “superstar” in 1969 and I was in his film, “Women in Revolt.” I found the Warhol scene really boring…
Penny: Why? Because it was boring! It was boring, it was like a lot of..you know…people act like the Warhol scene was like some kind of a French Foreign Legion that you joined—I mean, there was all kinds of people there, and it was mainly about how they looked. You know? And a lot of really crazy people who wanted a lot of attention for absolutely no reason. So Andy wasn’t discerning, he was neither discerning nor loyal. You know, people would come and be around and he’d have them be around, and it could be anybody. I always say that about the Underground, people always say, “oh, I wish I could be part of the Underground, I’m just not cool enough”—but the Underground’s not about being cool. It’s about being willing. People who were interested in those particular kinds of activities that were going on gravitated to a scene like the Warhol scene, and people tried to, you know, be part of it. I did not try to be part of it. Andy chose me from the Playhouse of the Ridiculous because he wanted people who were performers but who weren’t crazy. So that’s a real problem, not being crazy, if you’re an artist, because a lot of people are really crazy, and I’m not. I’m a very, very grounded person. I don’t think being an artist is special, OK? A lot of people want to be artists because they think it’s special. They think it’s going to set them apart from people, but I just don’t see it that way. And just like I don’t see being gay as being special.
Francis: I personally feel like the vocabulary of politics right now—it makes it impossible to have a really meaningful conversation and figure out what to do. Because in my mind, left-right politics, all that, especially when you get people who go to college and they want to be a lefty and they read all this old 19th Century stuff, and everything—but I feel like we’ve kind of come to this point now where there’s power that is held by very few people, you know the resources and the potential to affect that power, the potential to use technology and resources for the betterment of most people instead of very few, we never get that conversation going because we’re using all this old terminology, and it’s not…
Penny: i agree with you. I agree with you. Because most of it’s really poseur, you know? It’s not really people who really want to do anything. I mean, people call me an activist all the time, it’s written about me—I have never called myself an activist. An activist is what your community calls you, and they call you that usually after decades of selfless, anonymous service. And people just go around calling themselves activists, you know, it’s like you’re not an activist. An activist is somebody like Carmen Febone* who for like 60 years fed the poor on the Lower East Side and nobody knows her name. That’s an activist, you know? But this is the thing, it’s the gentrification of ideas. [tweeting in background] That is my bird clock, by the way. So a different bird will sing from time to time. [tweeting] That clock belonged to John Vaccaro, who passed away about, I don’t know, about six, seven years ago, and I inherited that clock, which means I have to think about Vaccaro every time it chirps. Someone was asking they were calling me an activist in an interview yesterday, and I said I’m not an activist. I think if I was a real activist, when I was in Zanzibar two years ago and I realized that they needed schools for the children there, and they needed fresh water in the villages, I would have stayed there and I would have made that mission my mission, because it was right in front of me. I’m not an activist, but I am a helper in my community. People know that when they have a problem, they can come to me and I don’t extend my help only to people I like. So in that sense, I am active.
Francis: [Do you agree] we’ve been revolving around the concept of inclusion, and how every everything is…I like how you used that term “micro-split..”
Francis: micro-splicing and, it’s so true that there’s all these little causes and they’re not connected…
Penny: There’s no coalition. The 60s worked because there was coalition. Now, you think that the powers that be don’t realize that coalition is dangerous, and so why not have all these little micro-spliced groups? And then what do you do with the college students? Because throughout history, it’s been the young who have led change in the world, because young people are always idealistic. And now all those kids, all those young people—if they’re at all interested in anything, which a lot of them are not, a lot of them are just operating in some kind of Kardashian reality—but the rest of them are all split up into little different groups. They’re either into Black Lives Matter, or they’re into the MeToo movement or they’re into trans rights or they’re into gender-fluid-queer-something. No…people do not come together to fight the common enemy.
Francis: Which is…?
Penny: Well, I would say it was that democracy was an experiment that failed. It never happened. We had more or less democracy at different points in this country’s history, but we never had a full functioning democracy. And I think that what really happened that people don’t look at is, the only trickle-down that ever happened was the trickle-down corruption at the highest levels of government and commerce, that happened with Halliburton and with Enron and all of these terrible scandals that we had in the 80s and 90s and 2000s, where honor, justice, honesty, all of these values no longer have any meaning in our culture. What has a meaning in our culture is, getting over. Did you get over? You got over? We respect you. Did you get the money? We respect you. We’re speaking right now from the Lower East Side, the East Village Lower East Side of New York, which, you know, in the 60s up to about 1983, there was a really big difference between uptown and downtown. People who lived downtown were usually aligned with left politics, they were anti-war, they were anti-rampant capitalism, they were for clean water, clean food, free sex and…meaning the freedom to choose…and it was a very big difference to uptown. And then around 1985, this started to change, and all of a sudden the values of downtown changed. So you would have a performer like Taylor Meade, who was also a Warhol superstar, but Taylor Meade came to New York in the 40s, he was a poet, he was aligned with the Beats and he was a very, very, very funny comedic actor. Well, he used to perform with Bill Cosby and all those famous comedians in the 50s, and when Bill Cosby would see Taylor Meade, who didn’t have a pot to piss in, Bill Cosby would sit down and have a talk and a drink with Taylor, and nobody thought, “oh, there’s Bill Cosby, he’s a multi-millionaire. There’s Taylor Meade, he’s poor.” Nobody would think that way, because the values didn’t include that. Nobody cared—so you’re a millionaire, so what? You had to have more going on than celebrity or money. That was an actual intrinsic value in the downtown art scene. That’s gone now. They’ll do a flip for Taylor Swift or for any other, you know, psuedo-celebrity—and I say “psuedo-celebrity” because to be a celebrity is different than being famous. To be a celebrity is to be celebrated for being able to do something. Taylor Swift is not rock star—Prince was a rock star, Taylor Swift is an insect. But the world has changed, and people don’t want to face it. So as you’re saying, Francis, that we’re using outmoded language, political language, the truth is that just everyday contemporary language is completely in a crisis where you can’t say anything, only certain people can use certain words…
Chris: And we need to remember fifty different pronouns…
Penny: Right. Exactly. And this is all—it’s just fascinating to me, because people think there’s some freedom in this. And the reality is that in the 80s, there was this huge politically-correct movement, which was the same thing. You couldn’t say “queer,” you couldn’t say “dyke,” you couldn’t say all these words or all these words you couldn’t say. And that was coming from the right wing. And now it’s coming from the supposedly the left. But I’m always, like freaking out when people talk about the Left, because what Left? You know, there is no Left. There’s nothing radical going on in America. Really, Trump got into office because of the abdication of the centrist middle class from the working class. The working class in this country is flipping out. Of course they’re going to go fascist. That’s what they do. Nobody cares about the fact that you cannot put food on the table for a family of four without both parents working two jobs. I grew up, my father was put in a mental hospital from a beating he received at Ellis Island when I was three, and I was raised by my mother and grandparents. And my grandparents were very elderly, and my grandfather worked til he was 78 years old, as a ditch digger for the city of New Britain, Connecticut, and my mother was a sweatshop seamstress. When I met Robin Morgan in 1967 at the Yippie hotline—Robin Morgan, for those of you who may not know, is a famous feminist, she was one of the original high-profile feminists in the 60s—and she invited me, Abby Hoffman gave her the other side of the storefront, and she started WITCH, which I do not remember what it stood for, but Women-ITCH, whatever it is, google it. They did the big demonstration against the Miss America pageant in 19…I guess it must have been 1968. I went to one of these meetings, she invited me to one of these meetings she was having, and I looked around the room and all of the women who were there—there were about eight women—most of them I knew as being the girlfriends of leftist political guys, including Robin Morgan. And Robin Morgan was telling me, “women don’t want to be housewives.” And I was looking at her, and I’m like, “my mother sews 70 hours a week in a sweatshop, she’d love to be a housewife.” I would have loved to have my mother at home. Are you kidding me? My mother would come home, and we couldn’t talk because she was exhausted from sewing in the sweatshop. So, you know, this privilege that accompanied a lot of these people’s ideas, you know I’ve always preferred the underclass. At least you can be direct with them, and you can be forthright and honest. I think the biggest problem that we’re facing right now is that it’s impossible to communicate with anyone. No one is allowed to stumble through ideas. In contemporary neuro-science, we know that you learn to form ideas by talking. You know, it used to be thought that first you were thinking, and then you spoke. But actually now it’s understood that you speak, and through speaking, you form ideas. And that’s the important reason for having a vocabulary, because the larger your vocabulary, the more expansive your thoughts can be. But right now we’re living in a time that is getting just narrower and narrower and narrower as far as expressing ideas.
Francis: Did you read Victorian literature? They were so elegant. Their vocabularies were immense compared to ours.
Penny: I know.
Francis: And, you know like…
Penny: I mean that was part of being seen as an intelligent person, was having a vocabulary. You know, I do my bit, I go to universities, and I talk to the kids. A lot of times they’re angry with me, and I say, “yeah, you’re angry with me,” I said, “but in 30 years I’ll be dead but you won’t have any water to drink.” You know, there are dark periods in history.
Francis: This is a dark period.
Penny: Yeah. And they usually last, like, 30 years.
Francis: It’s been at least 30…
Francis: I remember I saw you at Saint Mark’s Church one New Year’s Eve, and you did this bit about the Age of Aquarius…
Penny: Oh yeah.
Francis: And how, everyone thought it was in the 60s but it turns out that it’s not for another 30 years or something…
Francis: ..or maybe it’s coming?
Penny: Well, I mean, the thing is that…look at what we’re living with. Monsanto. In what Kardashian world would anybody ever have thought, with the history of famine on this planet, that making seeds that only last one cycle is a good idea? Who thought of that?
Francis: Why is that even legal?
Penny: But it’s insane! It’s completely insane. When I was in Tanzania, last year, I met three biochemists, and they were telling me that in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, all GMO things are illegal. Because they’ve already lived with famine. They’re not falling for that. But look at what’s happened in America, the greatest of America once was that we could feed all the people who lived here, and that there was free education for everyone. And we are losing both. It’s staggering. I mean, in my lifetime—I’m gonna be 69 years old in another month and a half—and I never would have believed. This is something even with the paranoia the 60s, we could have never come up with this scenario.
Chris: We were so paranoid as hardcore punk radicals, we were constantly…you know, we’d be hanging out at Frank’s house trying to figure out who among us was the CIA plant and everything like that…
Francis: Oh, there was definitely a couple.
Francis: They were the ones that interrupt constantly, and you know, like derail you, make sure you can’t accomplish anything…
Chris: I don’t think we were important enough for the government to worry about.
Penny: But the thing is that you still wouldn’t have been able to come up with the scenario that we’re currently living in. The thing that’s interesting is, I was in Australia during the presidential primaries, before the primaries. And one of the Australian political papers asked me to write a personal view of American politics. And I knew that Trump was gonna win. And nobody…everybody wanted to…”how did you know Trump was gonna…”
Francis: Yeah, how did you know?
Penny: It was..you know, it was as clear as the burning cross on your lawn! It was what America wanted, it was the unspoken America, that that’s who they were aiming at. The America that thinks Trump is a successful businessman. I mean there’s something wrong with this world—they can publish, and promote, and say, that every single business of Trump’s has gone under, and you’ll still get a whole bunch of people going “he doesn’t to be in bed with the government, cuz he’s rich.” Americans are super-stupid.
Francis: Do you know what’s coming after him? Some Democrat or…gets in office and realizes that he totally gutted us financially. And then they’ll say, well, we have to responsible, we’re going to have to do some austerity again.
Penny: Right. Well the austerity should come from the government itself. Stop paying all of these retirement benefits of hundreds of thousands of dollars for all these people who’ve been Senators and been in the government. The whole thing makes no sense, none of it makes sense, and it’s not…it’s not something that can be fixed. So if it’s not something that can be fixed, the way I see it is, like, reminds me of how I felt on September 11th. On September 11th, when the plane went through the second tower and I was watching it from the roof here, and I knew that the plane was gonna go through the second towe—which all the people on all the roofs around me somehow didn’t know. And I kept screaming, it’s gonna go into the tower, and people were looking at me like I was crazy. I thought, OK, now we’re gonna get New York back again, ‘cause nobody’s gonna want to be here. And instead what happened? It became the go-to place. So what will happen is, there will be a series of cataclysmic natural events, that we already know, that our government is not prepared for any emergency. We saw it with Katrina, we know nobody’s minding the store. During Katrina we watched it on television for days. Like, OK, you can bomb the shit out of Yemen but you can’t drop bottles of water and food into that…
Chris: The Superdome.
Penny: That’s right. There’s something really wrong. I mean we already know that Americans can’t work. Americans have lost the capacity to work, right? They took all the jobs, and then…so we have several generations of people who have never had to really be able to do something. I mean, we are dependent on Mexicans and on people coming from Eastern Europe and places where people can still ..make things. I mean, I brought a pair of shoes—there’s a shoemaker on Second Avenue, and I had this pair of shoes that I bought in Scotland, and they had—they were real witch’s shoes, and the toe turned up. And I used to tell everybody they were flat when I bought them and then I put ‘em on and the toes turned up—and I had had them in San Francisco, in a theater that was very damp. And the platform, which was made out of foam, disintegrated. I went everywhere with these shoes, I tried so many different places; I brought them to England, I brought them to L.A., I brought them everywhere looking for someone to fix them. And I was up in Woodstock and this woman said to me, “by the way, if you ever need a shoemaker, there’s this great shoemaker in the East Village on Second Avenue and Third Street.” I thought that was the oddest thing that someone would say to me, so I went there with the shoes. I put them on the counter and I said, “Can you fix these?” And he looked at ‘em, he said “100 dollars.” I said “done. When will they be ready?” He said “in one week.” The next day I get a phone call, “they’re ready.” And I go and pick them up at another shoe store, on First Avenue, and the guy brings me the shoes and they look brand new. I said “oh my god, you fixed the platform!” Remember, this is like an Arabic shoe with the toe goes skyward, right, it’s like round and up. And I said, “oh you fixed the platform,” and he said “what?” I said “you fixed the platform.” And he goes to the back and he comes back with the old platform. He had built a new platform. I looked at him and I said, :Are you from Uzbekistan?” And he said, “Why do you know that?” Because only somebody from Uzbekistan would still know how to make a shoe. Not just repair a shoe, but he made the shoe. I mean it was so outrageous, but this is what we find, that we’re losing really basic skills. I mean, New York City—you know, this is not a great place to get stuck if something really bad happens. Where’s the food? You know, we already know, like the flooding that’s in this neighborhood. They’re selling multi-million dollar apartments in Miami Beach, yet everyone knows that within 15-20 years, Miami Beach is not gonna exist anymore.
Chris: I’m currently sitting in St Petersburg, Florida and my house is at 35 feet, so I’m rooting for climate change so I can sell it as oceanfront property…
Penny: Well, there you go. But you see what I’m saying—we’re not facing, our leaders are not facing, the reality. I’ve said for a long time that what we need is a million-child march, because it’s the children who are going to inherit all of this.
Francis: Well, there’s that Swedish woman…
Penny: Yeah, the girl. Yeah, she’s fantastic.
Francis: Yeah, she’s…ok, she might be one little glimmer of hope, optimism, that generation…
Francis: ‘Cause eventually the kids are gonna be like the 60s again, where they’re gonna say, you know, if you’re an adult, we’re not interested in what you have to say, you’re…
Penny: Well not only that, it’s just the betrayal is tremendous.
Penny: The betrayal is enormous, because this is what bothers me—what is wrong with these oligarchs who are not even interested in the welfare of their own spawn? Right? They’re going to suck all the value out of the planet…
Francis: They have compounds that they’re gonna, you know, run to when the shit hits the fan…
Penny: Oh yeah, in Uruguay and stuff. Yeah. But it’s funny, because like I don’t know what they think. I mean, it’s like just the concept of a gated community—who wants to live in a gated community? So let’s get back to, now, what can be done. So I really am in the business of Being and Becoming, that’s what I’m trying to always evolve, and I’m a big promoter of authenticity and individuality for people. And that’s one of the ways that we can help ourselves…
Chris: One of the recurring themes on the podcast, from a lot of our guests, has been making small changes and, you know, if you get millions of people to make small changes suddenly it’s a big change.
Penny: That’s true. People stop using straws and plastic wrapping and…I’m here with an iced coffee in a plastic container, and I realize, oh, I should…I bought my stainless steel straw, you know, and I should take my stainless steel canister to get my iced coffee. I agree, small changes. But when it comes to what’s going on in the government and the failure…see, one of the things I’m most angry about is, I’m angry with the House of Representatives and the Senate and the Congress, because they are not protecting us from what’s going on in the White House. How dare…how dare the White House sell off our natural resources, our state parks, our highways…and these things aren’t even publicly known. You just get dribs and drabs of that information. We have Democracy Now! is one of the few news sources where you find out what’s actually going on…it’s a very sophisticated government. Corruption and evildoing are not new inventions. These were understood all the way back to the seventeenth century. So there are safeguards within our government to protect us from people taking advantage…and yet Trump has been able to have his own offspring as—what are they called?
Chris: Senior advisors…
Penny: Advisors! They’re doing all kinds of business, on the back of Americans—it’s like nobody’s minding the store. We’ve all been in that position, we’ve all been in a position where, all of sudden something goes wrong and there’s a free for all. And we’re like…well….we shouldn’t really be doing this but…I’m taking this. I’ve been there, I think most people have. And that’s what’s going on in the government.
Francis: So a question that comes to me a lot lately is, what can people who find reverence and beauty in nature, what can we do to…how do we interact with people who don’t have that? I just see it as something that potentially…
Penny: I mean, that’s…this is like the million dollar question, because if people have no respect…I mean…there’s Chris Tanner’s mother. Chris Tanner is a painter in the East Village, and his mom lives in North central California, and she has been an ecology person as a Congresswoman, etc. for 60 years. And she is seeing right now all of the things that she helped put in place be overturned. If it’s happening in California, where people care a little bit, like nobody cares here. I don’t know, I don’t know what the answer is. But I think that the card that holds the change is going to be an ecological disaster card. Something’s gonna come from the outside that’s gonna lay something down. And I don’t know what that is, but…that’s my sense. It’s…there’s not going to be a change because of the good wishes and well meaning of people. It’s gonna be in response to a crisis.
Chris: We’re bumping up against our time limit, so…
Penny: Yeeeah! We did good.
Chris: I’ll just ask you the same question we ask every guest: Is there anything you’d like to promote or pimp or tell people about that they should go see?
Penny: Well, everyone can go to my website, which is PennyArcade.tv—you can write to me, anyone can write to me who would like to write to me, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Invite me to your town—I like doing my work in different cities and meeting different people, and you’re all welcome any time to write to me with any of your problems, I can solve all your problems…my problems I’m not so good with, but other people’s problems are a piece of cake. Stay in touch!
Chris: Well, thank you so much.
Penny: Thank you.
Francis: Thank you.
As with all of our episodes, this one also is accompanied by a transcript so that everyone can enjoy it. Click here to read a transcript of Episode 6.
Making Better—Jim Fruchterman
(Music) Welcome to the Making Better podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.
Chris: Well, Francis, we’re up to episode 6 of Making Better!
Francis: Yes, and this is a really great episode.
Chris: This episode is Jim Fruchterman. He’s McArthur Genius Fellow, he’s one of the people who invented modern machine recognition based optical character recognition (OCR), he’s a social entrepreneur and a leader in the social entrepreneurship field, and while I respect an awful lot of people in the world, Jim is one of the very few whom I truly admire. This episode has a few audio glitches in it, we use a program called Zoom to record, and we had a few internet hiccups, but we hope you enjoy the episode.
Francis: (hiccups) That was a hiccup.
Chris: Jim Fruchterman, welcome to Making Better!
Jim: Thanks a lot Chris, glad to be here.
Chris: So you have a long and varied career doing all kinds of things, but always with a social conscience aspect to it. So if you could just give us a bit about your background, that’d be a great way to get started.
Jim: Well sure. Well, basically I’m a nerd. You know, I started doing computer programming in the early 70s, I went to Cal Tech, which is kind of nerd mecca, and so I was always interested in technology and science and figuring things out—and it was never quite clear what that career was going to be, but I thought I’d either be an astronaut or a professor. So that was kind of the track that I was on in college and when I started grad school. The connection I had to solving social problems was in college, I was in a class, a modern optics class, and we were learning how to make optical pattern recognition things. And because it was the 70s, and pretty much all the jobs were in the military-industrial complex, our professor was using the example of how you could essentially get a smart missile with a camera in its nose, and have a computer that had a representation of the target—could be a tank, or a bridge—and the idea is that you’d fire your missile, it would look around in the world until it spotted its target, lock on, zoom in and blow it up. So I had to do a project for this class, and I was going back after the lecture going, ‘I wonder if there’s a more socially beneficial application of this.” And then I got my one good idea in college, which was, hey, maybe you could make a reading machine for the blind. Maybe instead of recognizing tanks, you could recognize letters and words and speak them aloud. So, the next day I went back to my professor with a lot of enthusiasm, and he explained that someone actually had used this kind of technology to do pattern recognition on words; matter of fact it was I think the National Security Agency was using it to sort through Soviet faxes that they had intercepted. And they were having too many faxes, so if they could spot the word, like “nuclear weapon” in Russian, they would actually route that to a human..a human analyst to actually review. And I said, oh, great, so it’s already been built—how much does it cost? He said, uh, I think it’s millions of dollars per installation…which took a little of the air out of my, you know, reading machine for the blind tires. But it lay the groundwork for some of the future things that happened. So after finishing my masters at CalTech, I went to Stanford to start a PhD, and—Stanford is in the middle of Silicon Valley, and this was a pretty exciting time in Silicon Valley’s history, and so I and a couple of other engineering grad students started an entrepreneurship talk series in our dorm. And our first speaker had started a PC company named for our dorm, and the second speaker was the president of a private rocket company. And, I’d always wanted to be an astronaut, I’d even gotten an interview with, with the people at NASA in Texas, and so I said, ah great! So I took a leave of absence from my PhD program, joined the rocket project as their chief electrical engineer, built all their electronic systems, and the rocket actually blew up on the launch pad. So that was a bit of a disappointment…and I went back to Silicon Valley with my boss from the rocket project, and we tried to start our own rocket company, we tried to raise $200 million. No one gave us $200 million, and then my boss—now partner—said, hey, I know this guy who’s a chip designer at HP and he wants to start a company to design a custom chip that will something really cool. And I said, what’s he got in mind? He said, I don’t know, let’s go have dinner with him. So we went and had dinner with this guy, and he described how he wanted to make a chip that could take in light and recognize letters and words. ..Wow..that’s like my good idea from college, you could help blind people read with that. And so that became the start of a company that was originally called Palantir and then changed its name to Calera, and made essentially the first omni-font character recognition technology that worked without being trained. And as we started the company, we became more aware that Ray Kurtzweil had invented a OCR system and a reading machine before we had, and we, you know, raised a bunch of money from Silicon Valley venture capitalists to compete with their character recognition product. Long story short, it was one of the early machine learning companies in Silicon Valley, our particular breakthrough was, we took millions of examples of characters and trained an algorithm in how to recognize those characters, and it worked really well. Company built up, sold a lot of products to insurance and law firms and the government and, you know, those were sort of our main commercial markets, but the dream of making a reading machine for the blind was still there, and I still didn’t know any blind people, but I just imagined they could use this. And so we built a secret prototype, based on our commercial character recognition product, that was connected over a serial cable to a PC that had a first-generation *tracks voice synthesizer in it. And we demonstrated this to our board of directors, and it worked, it scanned the page and it read it aloud, and my board was, you know, excited, the product demo, you know, there’s a new potential product, and they said, Jim, you’re the VP of marketing, how big is the market for reading machines for the blind? And I said, well, we think Kurtzweil is selling about a million dollars a year, now that they’ve been acquired by Xerox….a relatively awkward pause occurred in the board meeting, and they said, well, but we’ve invested $25 million in this company, what’s the connection between a million dollar market and that? And I said, oh, it would be great PR, the employees are really excited bout it, our customers will be proud of us…and they’re like, no, you know, you’re only $15 million and year and you’re supposed to be $30 million a year in revenue by now. You’re missing plan, you’re not making money, we’re not going to allow you to distract the company to launch a new product to help blind people, because it doesn’t make enough money. And they were, you know, right from a business standpoint, wrong from a social and moral standpoint—so that’s kind of what caused to…to launch out of, sort of, the traditional Silicon Valley tech world and into the assistive technology and nonprofit world.
Chris: And that’s when you founded Arkenstone.
Jim: That’s right. So, so I went to, after the board vetoed it, I went to…the board vetoed the project because they didn’t want to distract the company. [*] said well, you could start your own nonprofit. And I said, what do you mean, nonprofit? He said, well, you don’t think there’s any money in this…I said, no…he said, I can give you pro bono help to start a charity, and you’d be essentially a tech nonprofit. I kind of giggled, ‘cause, as you know, I said well gee, I you know, i’ve been associated with an accidentally non-profit tech company, you know…gee, maybe if you’re a non-profit tech company you’re like…successful by definition if you lose money! (laughs) And so, that was the start of Arkenstone, and the idea was, because the market was so small, if we could make a break-even, you know, half a million, million dollar a year venture, it would be a big success. And Arkenstone became the only high-tech company I’ve ever been associated with that actually beat its plan. I think within three years we were $5 million a year, and making reading machines for the blind as an enterprise, and breaking even—and that’s how Arkenstone actually went into the reading machine for the blind business and my old company was perfectly happy for me to do it, just as long as I did it outside of the company as a customer. They gave me a really big discount, they gave me extended credit, but—as long as I wasn’t distracting the team from making money, they didn’t have an objection for me doing it. And basically, I got a pretty sweet deal in exchange for a noncompete and no-hire agreement from my old company.
Chris: And that would go on to become what’s now Benetech, a nonprofit with a much broader set of goals and agenda. Why don’t you tell us about Benetech…
Jim: So Arkenstone got started in 1989, got to $5 million a year, and as time went on, you know, we would keep cutting prices, more people would be able to afford the product, our revenue stayed about the same. We were always break-even. We created a new product, we created a talking GPS for the blind called Strider, but it didn’t make enough money and we were short of money, and Mike May, who was then our VP of Sales, was kind of our core user of that product, he ended up spinning out of Benetech and starting Sendero Group to make talking GPS. But I was basically struggling with the fact that running a break-even social venture meant that I had no extra money, and the fact that we kind of had to shut down Strider or spin it off was basically an indicator that break-even was great as far as it went. So after about ten years, I got…I was kind of getting bored, I had all these ideas for other things that we could do to help blind people, to do stuff [for human rights], then the guy who started what became Freedom Scientific, Dick Chandler, came over and said, hey, I want to buy Arkenstone from you. And well, it doesn’t belong to me, it’s a charity, go away! So, he came back a couple of months later and he said, Jim, why don’t you tell me what your aspirations are? Hmm. This turns out to be a negotiating ploy, but as a nerd I didn’t really recognize it as such, and I said, well, I have all these dreams of doing, you know, other things for blind people, I want to do human rights,..and he said, tell you what, I’ll give you $5 million to your nonprofit, buy the assets of Arkenstone and merge it into Henter-Joyce with its JAWS product and Blaize Engineering with their Braille and Speak product, and you know, we’ll create this new company, and you can stay in the nonprofit with your engineering team, rent the engineering team back to us for a year, and then go off and start new projects. So that’s…but they also bought the Arkenstone name, so we had to change the name of the nonprofit from Arkenstone to Benetech. And we did our year of work on the next version of all the products that we had sold to Freedom Scientific, and then we had the ability to go off and look at a whole bunch of new projects. And so what we did is, we had about $5 million from Freedom Scientific, which could not go into my pocket—that’s illegal, it’s a charity—we raised another between $4 and $5 million from big silicon valley donors, especially Skoll and Omidyar are the two key people behind the creation of eBay. We had $9 million, we looked a hundred ideas, we invested in 20 ideas, and four of them became nonprofit social enterprise products that went on to change their field. So the one that is really well known in the blindless field is Bookshare, but we also started a first big data group human rights movement, we started the first software for capturing human rights data so that the information wouldn’t be lost, we created an environmental project management package, and plus there are a lot of other projects that we tried that didn’t take off, which is pretty much the Silicon Valley way, it’s just that in every case we’re not looking to make money—‘cause we’re nonprofit—it’s how can we help the most people while breaking even. And that formula turns out to, not only, you know, worked after we sold to Freedom Scientific, but it’s continued to work to this day, and we’ll always have lots of cool tech for good projects in our hopper, and are busy trying to figure out how to, which ones will take off, and then scale them up and make an impact.
Chris: And your business plan for Benetech received the Charles Schwab recognition as the best business plan for a nonprofit that year…
Jim: We got a lot of recognition. It was Klaus Schwab, who was the founder of the World Economic Forum, the Davos people, who gave us the Social Entrepreneur award and our Bookshare business plan won, I think, runner-up in the Yale business plan competition, which was the first social [*] business plan competition…and then we won the Skoll award. Even though we were pretty early on, once we made that transition to Benetech, we started to get a lot of attention, because the social entrepreneurship field—this idea of using innovation and entrepreneurship to help solve social problems—really started taking off in the early 2000s. Because we’d been doing it for a dozen years, we were seen as one of the founders of that movement.
Francis: Why is it that you won these awards, what specifically did you do best?
Jim: I think the unusual thing about us was, we bucked the Silicon Valley greed-profit-seeking motivation, that often leads Silicon Valley to do some kind of nasty things. We said, look, no, we’re setting up to be in the public good. So I think the reason that people got excited and recognized us was the idea of an exciting, Silicon Valley startup company that had chosen to be a charity, to be a nonprofit, and to focus on doing social good, kind of flew in the face of how people regarded Silicon Valley, which was make money at all costs, and kill yourself along the way. I think that was one reason, I think the other reason was that the things we we were doing were really understandable. Many tech companies have great products that the average human being cannot understand why this middleware company exists. We were helping blind people read, you know, we were the Napster of books, when it came to Bookshare. We were helping document human rights and helping convict genocidal generals of genocide. I mean, this I think captured more people’s imagination that technology could be used deliberately for good rather than occasionally evil by accident, which is certainly the story of big parts of the tech industry today.
Chris: I like the phrase, the “G-mafia,” it stands for Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, IBM and Amazon as the evils of, ah…artificial intelligence these days.
Jim: Basically, we were using what was considered at the time “artificial intelligence” to actually help blind people read. And AI has that potential to do good, it’s just right now I think we’re at a point where a lot of people are applying machine learning/AI in very sloppy ways…and hurting a lot of people, because they’re just ignoring many of the things we know about things like statistics. Anyway, we can come back to that, but I’m spending a lot more time kind of helping, not only the disability community, but other minority communities understand some of the threat that AI, badly applied, actually poses to their interests.
Francis: One of the things that I found really troubling during, like, the 80s and 90s even, was the religion of the free market, where like the free market could solve every problem. One of the things that I’ve seen, especially in research, is that when there isn’t a lot of money to be gained, it’s hard to get funding and it’s hard to get things up and running a lot of the time. Say, for example, with rare diseases, that kind of thing, you know we have this situation now where nonprofits kind of pick up the slack, but it seems to me that there’s like an inefficiency to it all because, for example, my girlfriend has a nonprofit, and she spends half her time or more raising funds. Is this model, in your view, working? Is there…other ways to approach it on a larger scale? Is government maybe supposed to play more of a role?
Jim: Well, the short answer is yes. People often try to say, Jim, why aren’t you a for-profit? Can you be making a lot more money as a for-profit? And the answer is…yeah, but we want to work on social problems. And many social problems are directly connected to a market failure. The reason that Arkenstone, you know, the original name of Benetech, got started was because our investors said, “no, that doesn’t make enough money, don’t do it.” And so, now, the free market religion usually goes the extra step of saying, if it doesn’t make a lot of money, it’s a bad idea. And that’s the idea that I reject and a lot of other people reject, which is, wait a minute, if you think that, then you’re going to consign 95% [men who need] to never getting the benefits of most of this cool technology we’ve created. And the great thing about technology is, the marginal cost of a new piece of software, a new chunk of content, is next to nothing. So as long as you can see your way clear to actually working on this thing that’s not an exciting market, you can do an amazing amount of good for almost no money. Bookshare is an example of, we promise any student in the US that needs a book, we’d already have it, we’ll go get it and add it to our library. And now the library has 700,000 books and about 700,000 users—that runs for $10 million a year. On less than another $10 million a year, we can solve the problem for the whole darn planet, which by the way is a fraction of what the planet spends on library services for people with disabilities. Its leverage is terrific. The other part of your question, which is about what model is there? So, there’s basically two models; one model is, you encourage the creation of nonprofit social enterprises, like Arkenstone or Benetech, and now there are several hundred of them. So, we were alone back in those days, and the other people who were starting similar things at the same time, we didn’t know about each other, I didn’t know that this thing existed for the first ten years. And so now we know that we’re a field, the people who create the technology—the companies, the academics, the authors, the publishers, whatever it might be—they’re often quite generous with access to their intellectual property to help more of humanity. So we’re actually able to get our hands on this stuff. So I think that that is a good model. The nonprofit sector is never going to be as scalable, as efficient, as something that actually makes money. So if you can do social good and make money, I encourage people to do that. But I think your last point is, what about regulation—I think it is possible to take some of the worst things about industry and change some of those things by legislation. And the one that a lot of people with disabilities are familiar with, it’s actually against the law to discriminate against people with disabilities. Now, we all know that doesn’t stop it from happening, but on the average, it makes it harder, and as people lose more and more lawsuits, they do more and more to avoid getting, you know, caught in a lawsuit, we actually move the ball forward. So I think that both of those models are important, and I think that it’s clear that we have a need for more nonprofit social enterprises, and we also have a need for more government regulation to remedy some of the excesses of the market, some of the negative social consequences that come from—you know, whether it’s over pollution and climate change, or it’s discrimination through AI—these are all things that need some attention, in my opinion.
Chris: Can you speak more to some of the human rights and the non-disability related things that you work on at Benetech?
Jim: Oh sure. I think the great thing about the sort of transition at Benetech was, it gave us some money to respond to some of these needs. And so the story of Benetech has been, starting from base in technology serving people with disabilities (which by the way is still more than 2/3rds of what Benetech does), but we’ve been able to do quite a number of projects for other parts, other social issues. So one of the big questions we had is, how can we help prevent atrocities in the developing world, on human rights violations? And you know, we thought about it a lot and the best thing we could come up with was, what if you could capture and not lose the testimony of, you know, people who survived human rights abuses, that witnessed them, and so t hat started a very long sequence of work at Benetech—it’s been going on now for over 15 years—of supporting the human rights movement. Because frankly, if you think about the human rights movement, the only thing it has is information. I mean, activists and information are their only assets. And so, we found out that the majority of these stories, these truths, were getting lost—groups were going out of business, they were getting…their offices were burned, their computers were stolen—so the idea is, hey, let’s capture those stories, let’s back them up into the cloud, so that they’re not lost, and then if we get a big pile of data, then we essentially had a big data group that would actually analyze these patterns and so testify in genocide trials, identify patterns of basically who did what to whom, and be part of the support for the outnumbered human rights activists. And so we got involved in a lot of the large-scale human rights violations, you know, civil wars and conflicts, we helped really understand what the numbers are and political science, that was kind of unusual to actually be asserting things based on data rather than opinion. And we had lots and lots of data in a lot of these civil wars and conflicts, from many , many different groups. And so we were able to do this, we moved into the LGBT community in Africa, after they were under a lot of threat of capital punishment for being gay, and certain African countries was being floated as a law, helped groups write the first police violence against gay people and their country kind of reports, and leading to change, and often we’re helping the UN, so…so for example right now, our biggest project in this area is that there’s between five and ten million videos that possibly include information about atrocities in the Syrian civil war, and we’re writing machine learning AI algorithms to help basically go from $5 or $10 million videos that you might want to look at, which no person can actually do, down to maybe the 500 or 1,000 videos that might be relevant to preparing a case against people who launch chemical munitions. We’re not a human rights group, we’re the nerds and the scientists who help make the human rights movement more powerful. That’s one example, another example is the environmental field came to us, about a dozen years ago, and said to us the state of the art for project management in the environmental field at the time was an excel spreadsheet, and that—you know, it’s another case of the market failure that we talked about, is construction had fifty different project management packages, depending on what you were constructing. But people who were running, you know, wetlands restorations, or campaigns against environmentally bad practices, were stuck with an Excel spreadsheet. And a general tool like Microsoft project was way too complex for your average biologist or activist, so we wrote something called [morati]. We jokingly called it TurboTax for the environmental activist professional—the idea is that it would ask you a set of questions, kind of a “wizard,” and come with an explanation of how a dollar in, like more salmon or cleaner air or whatever it might be—and so that project has gone on to be, you know, the leading project management package in the environmental movement. The list kind of goes on, I mean, we’re doing a ton of stuff in assistive technology, we started the Diagram Center, which is all about how to make STEM and STEAM; and the whole idea of Diagram was, why doesn’t everyone in the field get together, build shared technology and shared standards as a common effort, given that we all care about making science and technology, engineering and math, and arts content more accessible. And so that’s a great example, and then of course some, the one that I think is very exciting is the woman who took over as CEO of Benetech from me in…late last year, Betsy Bowman, who’s been at Benetech for 10 years, she helped get the “Born Accessible” campaign launched, and the goal of “Born Accessible” is to eventually put Bookshare out of business. The idea is that if we can convince the publishers to create their mainstream e-books completely accessibly, then blind and other people with disabilities related to print can just get the standard e-book and it should work great. And that’s increasingly the case, and we’re hoping to do that for more and more complicated works so that, eventually, the need for something like Bookshare will peak and people will start relying on mainstream e-books to be able to read what they need to read.
Chris: And what do you see for the future, what ideas are out there that you haven’t started on that you would really be enthusiastic about doing next?
Jim: So I’m actually having a blast with actually not being the CEO of Benetech, and the great thing is, I think Benetech is going to continue to expand and have ever-greater impact under the new leadership, and frankly it was probably, after about 30 years, probably time for someone to take over Benetech. And the roadmap that Benetech has is pretty clear—you know, we worked closely with the World Blind Union, and other blindness organizations, especially the NFB here in the United States, to get the Marakesh treaty passed globally, to get the US to ratify it, Europe has ratified it…I think the goal is, is that even as we work on the Born Accessible movement here in the US, to reduce the need for Bookshare, I think that there are millions of people around the world for whom access to books is, you know, ten or twenty years behind where we are in the US. And so I think the Marakesh treaty is going to let us, over time, become the national library, be where Bookshare was 15 years ago in the US. I think right now Bookshare is the national library, free national library in easily a dozen countries already. So I think that roadmap is kind of set, obviously Benetech is going to go off and do more and more stuff in human rights. Benetech’s also started doing stuff in health and human services, they have a project called Servicenet to make information about health and human services a lot more available to people who need them, because that field is stuck kind of in the “yellow pages” era of information management. So Benetech is off and running those things. I’ve launched a new social enterprise called Tech Matters, as of January. It’s actually physically sponsored by Benetech, so we still have a connection, but the difference is that if I don’t raise money for Tech Matters, then I don’t get paid, so Benetech’s not on the hook for paying my salary. And now I’m working on a whole fresh set of social problems that Benetech hasn’t had the bandwidth to work on. So I”m working with the global movement of child helplines, so these are the people who, you know, in many countries take the phone call from a kid in crisis or someone who sees a kid being abused, and helping them update their technology platform to do a better job of helping potentially a hundred million kids around the world in the next few years. I’m working on fighting slavery in the supply chain, basically unethical labor practices, I have a next-generation environmental project that’s going to help essentially regions figure out what to do about climate change and the environment and matching conservation up with livelihoods and agriculture and all that sort of stuff. So the common thread to everything I get to do today is, someone has a social problem that they want to solve, they’ve got a group of nonprofits or government agencies, or for-profits, that want to work together on solving that, and I get to be their nerd. I get to help imagine what technology products or standards or glue might help unlock the potential of these people to help solve this big social problem. And that’s, frankly, it’s a blast. I’m, you know, fresh challenges, lots of people who are very dedicated to the community that they serve, and I get to make their tools or help see that they have the best possible tools for the job.
Francis: I think what you’re doing speaks to an enormous need in society today, where there are all these technological solutions, and maybe potential for creativity with what we have, and it’s not really being discussed even as a choice for society. I think that the role that you’re playing is one that we need on such a larger scale.
Jim: I’m glad to say that I’m part of the growing movement, because a lot of people see the same problem that you see with technology. And I see it most obvious in the universities, both among faculty and students. I think that computer science faculty—to pick a group—are very concerned about what they’ve helped create, which are basically, in many cases, technology companies that are, if not immoral, are certainly amoral, and often are kind of clueless about the negative social impacts that they have. Quite a number of universities have started programs that go by a bunch of different labels; one label is “public interest technology,” the idea that people might want to work on essentially using technology to help solve social problems and serving in the public interest rather than in the private interest. There’s people who work on “computer science plus” problems; so, how could computer science help ag, how could computer science help human rights, how can computer science help education. So there is a movement here, and I know that, for example Stanford just announced a major university wide program to try and engage their faculty, who are pretty high-powered, and their students, into actually working on social problems rather than on just relentlessly spinning off, you know, the next Silicon Valley unicorn company. So, I like the think this is going, and of course there is a, you know, very exciting stuff going on in the—especially in the last administration—that has continued, under the Trump administration, which is, you know reforming how the federal government uses technology to better serve people. Government agencies realize that they’ve done a really bad job of serving society, I think the Healthcare.gov fiasco of a few years ago was kind of, you know, one of the low points and I know that a lot of people are trying to make sure that technology actually works better for, let’s say, veterans or people who are on Social Security, and hopefully we will see more progress in those areas, which touch an awful lot of Americans.
Francis: Well if you want to talk about waste, what are we going to do about this defense budget, and the amount of resources…I mean, all that power that could be used for good. I know this is sort of one of those out of left field questions, but you can’t, you know, get away with saying, hey, I’m not a rocket scientist because actually at one point you were.
Jim: (chuckles) Obviously I got started by hearing about a military application of technology and thinking about a social application of that same technology. And the good news is, you know, Silicon Valley got its start almost exclusively in defense industry applications, and the story of Silicon Valley over the nearly 40 years that I’ve been here, has been a steady move away from being focused as much on military applications of technology to applications that help society, and we see this in the giant protests at companies like Google about their technology being used, say, to target people for assassination with drones. There’s an awful lot of people in the tech field who did not go into the tech field to build technology that did that sort of thing, and talent ultimately is one of the biggest factors in what goes on in tech companies. And so many tech companies are going to have to pay attention to how their technology is being used, and I think that we’re going through a period right now, you know, we’re highlighting not only how technology is being applied to military things, but also how the technology is being applied to, whether it’s enabled bullying, or thrown elections, or whatever it might be, I think people are beginning to grapple with some of these social impacts that got ignored during the go-go phase of the last, especially 20 years of the growth of the internet.
Francis: I love the idea of being a nerd. I mean, I consider that like a pretty high compliment in my world…you know, you think that maybe this country would want to try a nerd for President, I think what we have now is like as opposite a nerd as you could possibly be.
Chris: I think Michael Dukakis was that candidate, and we…he didn’t do very well.
Jim: Yeah, I know, my sister was saying “will you please run for president” and I’m like—naah.
Chris: C’mon Jim, everyone else is…why not?
Jim: I think that one of the biggest concerns expressed by nerds, especially nerd philosophers and nerd thinkers, is that the technology that we’ve created has undercut, kind of, respect for technology, for science, for fact. And they lay that at the door of essentially what are our social media, sort of world has created is that, by the way that a Facebook or YouTube makes money is for people to stay on their site longer, and they’ve learned that the way to get people to stay on their site longer is to feed t hem more and more outrageous things to cause them to get angry, or get sad, or—to basically appeal to their lowest emotions. The problem with things that are false is that they are more engaging. Essentially, Silicon Valley has created this giant engine to sort of stupidify the average person who uses their products, because it’s in their economic interest for you to get more and more false information because it’s more engaging. ‘Cause, you know, whether it’s clickbait or a false claim, those things get a lot more attention—i.e., more people spending more time on the site—than things that happen to be true. I think there are people who are very, very worried about this, and this might, you know, come back to some of this regulation that so many people in Silicon Valley object to regulation, but they’re like systematically destroying respect for science, respect for truth, respect for institutions…by creating a tool that relentlessly destroys those things in their economic interest.
Chris: There was a study published recently, I think it was out of a university in the UK, that showed that if you start YouTube with a brand-new account, completely fresh, you know, Google doesn’t know anything about you so it doesn’t know what to recommend, and you do your first search on the US House of Representatives, and then just watch each video that it recommends to follow next, and within eight to ten videos you’re going to be on something promoting the flat earth theory.
Jim: Yeah. Or Alex Jones and Infowars, or something else like that—yes. I was actually reading a book, actually entitled “Zucked” which is by an early advisor to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who actually says it’s like three or four things, but, we tend to end up there because the algorithms encourage it. And AI, really good at doing whatever task you set it to, and if the task is “have people spend more time on the website and click more and look at more ads,” that’s why you end up with stuff that’s false. But I’m on the techno-optimist side. I think that most tech people want to be creating things of value, and do not want to be associated with things that are evil by accident, or now, one might argue after it’s been pointed out enough, evil on purpose—and so I think that my goal is to keep putting the idea that it is possible to make a living doing technology for social good. It may not be the best path to becoming a billionaire, it’s a pretty bad path if becoming a billionaire is your objective. You know, there’s an awful lot of people who want to live a life that they can actually be proud of and work on things that they’re actually proud of, and as demonstration of that there’s a lot of great teachers and a lot of great people in many professions that help people in spite of the fact that they don’t make as much money. I want to get more of the tech field to channel itself into this, how can we do good on purpose? How can actually set out to maximize human utility—making people’s lives better? Because I think that is ultimately what drew a lot of us to being nerds.
Francis: We had a guest, Richard Stallman, on recently, who had this really great idea I thought, which is to have a progressive tax on corporations based on their size. Basically what that would do was, it would make it so, you know, at a certain point it just doesn’t make sense to get any bigger, and you know the idea that that would ultimately create a more diverse and robust economy.
Jim: And of course Richard, you know, founded the free software movement, which really influenced these more community values—and we are giant fans of free software, we’re also giant fans of open source software, which I know Richard’s not crazy about. But I’m not as much of an economist, I’m how we actually choose to solve this problem. I do believe that whether it’s income inequality or abuses of tech platforms, that we’re going to see more regulatory activity, we’re going to see more changes in tax, but ultimately it depends on the electorate deciding that they want those changes. And it’ll be interesting to see if we can get that consensus, because clearly we haven’t necessarily been moving in that direction lately.
Chris: As we just discussed, AI’s driving people to increasingly faulty and useless information, people are more and more likely to be misinformed.
Jim: Yeah, and sometimes it’s much more subtle than that. I did a major study last year for a major disability donor, and they asked me to look at what technology might help if the goal was to greatly increase the number of people with disabilities who had employment. Many of us on this call know about assistive technology and other ways that you could make people in employment more effective and more likely to be able to get a job or keep a job, because they have tools at hand to do it. The thing that blew my mind—and maybe it shouldn’t have—was essentially technologies taking over the recruiting and the hiring process in almost all large corporations and many small and medium corporations. And Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, has been applied to every single step in that process, and in many cases, the way machine learning has been applied is egregiously discriminatory against people with disabilities. Which, one would think, is against the law in this country, but that doesn’t stop people from buying this technology or applying it, because the people who sell the technology say, “our machine learning, it doesn’t see gender, it doesn’t see race, it doesn’t see disability” and yet the way they’ve implemented these things can’t help but discriminate. And I think that we’ve, you know, we’re part again of a movement of calling out these technologies and saying “how is it possible that that technology doesn’t illegally discriminate against people”…and I expect, actually, that we’re going to have to have disability rights attorneys suing companies over buying machine learning tools that discriminate against people with disabilities, and eventually people will have to actually correct this. But some of these companies are going to become, you know, very rich before anyone actually calls them to account for the fact that they built something that extensively discriminates against people with disabilities.
Chris: About a year ago, I wrote a blog article called “Can an AI be Racist?” and I based it entirely on what Apple suggests in my Favorites playlist every Tuesday, that comes out, if you use Apple Music…and every week they recommend 25 songs that you’d like to listen to, you know, from your own library and put it together as a Favorites mix. And literally for weeks and weeks on end, the top dozen were all white artists, and the bottom thirteen were all black artists. And Jimi Hendricks was always the borderline. So for some reason, Apple Music prioritizes white artists over black artists, and my record collection’s probably 75% minority.
Jim: Yeah, it’s really fascinating how that works out, isn’t it?
Chris: Yeah, but it surprised me after a few weeks in a row, when I started following it.
Jim: This is an issue that’s getting a lot of attention, and people are ..one of the things that people are trying to do, one of them is make the people who work on machine learning a much more diverse crowd, so that the kind of oversight that might lead to the kind of outcome you describe is less likely to happen if you have a more diverse group of people working on it, going “gee, this result seems very odd.” But in many cases we don’t have people who work on these tools that see these obvious problems. And of course, I think gender discrimination problem is the one that’s the most obvious, and people have the most awareness that it’s a problem. There’s a famous story about Amazon killing an automated resume screening tool because they could not keep it from discriminating against women. And if it’s that hard to stop something from discriminating against women, imagine how hard it is to stop it from discriminating against minorities or people with disabilities.
Francis: I think that’s really a fascinating line of thought, because it circles back a little bit to what we were talking about earlier, where in, you know, like a capitalist free market system, you know there’s going to be like certain things that just don’t get attention that really need attention. I wonder if there’s some kind of connection there.
Jim: The example that I use in this report is a company called Hire Vue (and they spell it, you know, like hiring people and View like v-u-e I think). What they do is create a screening tool, that they show you a video and you record yourself answering that video, and then a machine learning algorithm analyzes your facial movements and your voice tone and your word choice, and decides whether you are the one in five people who do this who get an interview with a human being. So they screen out 80% of all people. And I think we can all imagine many, many different kinds of disabilities that might get in the way of using this, from accessibility problems with the app as itself, actually pointing the camera at the right spot…and then the question is, well, how many people with disabilities were in the training set that they used to create this “scientifically validated” thing? And I’m guessing not a lot of blind people were in their training set. So, you know, it’s both the algorithm, what they’re collecting, has tremendous discriminatory capabilities. What if someone can’t speak, what if someone has a stroke and half their face doesn’t move, what if they’re from a culture that discourages obvious show of emotion…I mean, all these things that are discriminatory and then you have the training set, and how it was trained, and I’m guessing that it did not reflect a diverse population that included lots of minorities and people with disabilities. And yet, this tool is going, it’s out there and being used all over the place, and one of my favorite geeks, the guy who actually was like the head of our human rights program for almost ten years, he said “something that you all should watch out for is, when the customer for a machine learning tool and the people who build the machine learning tool…if neither of them suffer any consequences when the machine learning tool gets something wrong, you’ve got a case of moral hazard.” And this is classic example of, the company is saving money, that bought the tool, the company that sold the tool is making money, and the fact that they might egregiously discriminate against people with disabilities…who’s suffering? People with disabilities, not people who are in the middle of this transaction. This is the core of the problem that we’re having, essentially with the new generation of technology, is that the people who are engaging in the financial transactions are actually not the people who suffer the consequences of the decision, right? The users of Facebook, people posting on Facebook, they’re being commoditized and product-ized to get a free tool, but, you know, it’s Facebook and their advertisers that are making all the money. This problem just keeps resurfacing, that we’ve now moved to a market where the traditional “I am the seller, and I’m getting for you, and your the purchaser, and we’re the only dynamic”…Silicon Valley has, in many cases has moved to this dynamic where the person who actually uses the product is the product, and I think we’ve all heard that kind of claim, but it shows up in this sort of thing where the people who suffer the consequences of it going wrong aren’t actually making the decisions about how to build the product or actually how to pay for it.
Chris: And how do you see a path to disrupting that?
Jim: I mean, we’ve talked about the two paths that are there, which is, you know, starting nonprofit social enterprises that actually focus on doing good with the technology, and regulation to curb the most excessive abuses by the for-profit world. I’m not naive, it’s…it’s not going to be possible for nonprofit social enterprise to displace Facebook. I don’t take that as a very serious option. But I find that many of the technologies, or the things that we’ve come to understand from these technologies and these successful companies can be applied to deliberately doing social good. Obviously doing pattern recognition to help blind people read books was the one that started my career. You know, right now we’re trying to figure out how could you use machine learning to better prosecute war criminals, in the Syrian context. The project we’re working on around, sort of, large scale environmental stuff, how could we be using machine learning to better model erosion and water retention in regions that are going through land degradation and desertification. The same tools can be applied to these things, and I think that a lot of this is intent. We need to get more people intent on doing social good with technology, to create value that is not purely privatized, that actually keeps in mind the impact this has on society, and then we need regulation that actually makes it difficult for people to go out and just ruthlessly exploit people, which they actually have a great habit of doing.
Francis: Another things that I think is a big flaw in our society today, in regards to its relationship to new technology, is basically how the workday has gotten more and more intense when the actual amount of labor it takes to sustain a quality of life for the world has gone down. I was wondering if you could speak to that at all?
Jim: There are people that are working on this, and different groups have tackled different parts of it. So, there’s a guy who came out of the tech industry who started a movement called “Time well spent.” And the idea is that these tech tools have stolen a lot of our attention, and that has caused our human relationships to actually suffer, because these things are designed to be addictive, more addictive and overcoming many of our self-governing mechanisms, you know, why we should spend more time with our family, for example. And so they’ve influenced new features on the latest generation of iPhones and Android phones, actually spend more time with tools that help you keep from looking at email up until when you go to bed, creating more awareness of, gee I spent 40 hours last week playing this online game, maybe that’s actually not what I want to do. We also have some things going on in terms of social norming and regulation, and the Europeans are further along on this, whether it’s with much stricter privacy requirements and antitrust requirements, and actually fining companies like Google billions of dollars for violating those things. There’s also, I know there are European companies that turn off email in the evenings so that their employees can’t work on company email after a certain point, after six o’clock at night, or before eight o’clock in the morning, whatever it might be. One of my favorite books on this subject is from Tim O’Reilly, the guy who coined the term “opensource” and has been a big leader in the tech field for a long time, he wrong a book called WTF, which when he gave a talk on it in the Obama White House got sanitized to “What the Future.”
Chris: That’s funny, ‘cause President Obama was on Marc Maron’s podcast called WTF, and he expands it to be the largest philosophical question of our time, “What the Fuck?”
Jim: Yeah, exactly. Well anyway, it’s good to know that President Obama’s up for this in multiple dimensions, but Tim’s book—I mean, there’s a lot of exciting stuff there about where he sees the future going. But one of his biggest points is, we get to choose—you know, people often in the tech industry present this as an inevitable form of, you know, it must be this way. Data wants this. Business just works this way. And that’s not actually true. As a society, we can choose to prioritize privacy more, or prohibit some of the most abuses of our data, or whatever it might be. And so I think the question is putting, sort of, society back in charge of making some of these choices, either by informally what they choose to do and not do, but also what their legislators do in terms of regulating industry.
Chris: Changing gears then, what is it about technology you are most optimistic about, looking to long term future? Like, you know, where do you see us in 20, 30, 40, 50 years if your optimistic vision of technology happens?
Jim: I think that there’s some things that technology can do for us that will make lives better. So let’s say that we have some agreement on what a better life is. Or whether that’s just more autonomy to make choices about their life. So we could imagine technology helping solve the climate change issue, or taking some of the extreme impacts of climate change off. We can imagine technology and access to information being such that education becomes more effective, that the rights of women and minorities and people with disabilities have a greater level of respect. Obviously there’s tremendous stuff going on in the medical area. So if our goal is to reduce human suffering, to improve the quality of life for people, to give people more autonomy and more choices in how their lives unfold, that communities can make choices about how they want development or industrialization or conservation to be pursued in their communities—I see every single social issue that we face, there’s a lot of people working on that issue that want to make a dent in it, and I see technology as an indispensable tool in helping realize those visions of a better, more just, healthier, greener planet, whatever it might be. And so, you know, that’s what makes my job really so much fun. It’s if someone sits down with me and says here’s a social problem, and here’s the better world that we can imagine, it’s not hard for me to come up with five exciting technology ideas that might help contribute to that, a couple of which are bad ideas, a couple of which are probably great ideas—I don’t know which are which right now, but it’s not hard to figure that out, and that’s what I get to spend my time on, and I know that there’s an awful lot of people coming out of the tech industry who would like to be doing that kind of work, and I want to that just more normal, more sustainable, more of a career choice that more people with tech skills can actually pursue.
Francis: How would you recommend to someone who is hearing this that wants to change careers now? What would be the first steps for someone like that?
Jim: You know, you’re most powerful when you bring skills to bear, and so if you are mid-career, and there’s a lot of things that people have learned in their career that might apply to doing social good, right? I mean, I think my background as a tech entrepreneur and a machine learning guy actually turned out to be pretty darned handy to a lot of things that I ended up doing, leading Benetech, and now Tech Matters. And so if you are early in your career, I mean I often advising people, saying, what are you really good at? Get better at it, get some experience…some people come out of school and go into the nonprofit sector. And I think that that is increasingly a career option, but I’m also aware that the way our economic system works, often people come out of school with so much debt they have to go, and go to a job that makes more money. But I think that, I see people coming to the kind of work that Benetech does, whether it’s fresh out of school, early career, mid-career, late career, final sort of phase in your career—people at every step along that way are actually saying, I want to move from money to meaning, is sort of one of my catchphrases. And I think that there are…if you have a skill that’s actually applicable to these kind of social good applications. And so there are, there’s a lot of meat out there. It just doesn’t happen to pay, you know, $500,000 a year.
Chris: But you can make a reasonable salary in the non-profit sector. Because of some research I’ve done recently, I know the salaries of an awful lot of people working in the non-profit sector in the blindness space, and they’re making a living wage.
Jim: Yeah. And yes, I mean, the CEO’s generally not making, you know, billions or hundreds of millions or tens of millions, or generally not millions, but we can get people who are working for big tech companies to come join us. They often take a significant pay cut, but you know we can still pay more than $100,000 a year to a software developer with a lot of experience, even if they can make more than $200,000 or $300,000 at some of these tech companies. I mean the average salary at Facebook is like $250,000 a year.
Chris: But that doesn’t include contractors, and they have a ton of contractors there.
Jim: No, they do have a pretty deft way of pushing those people off payroll. But you come fresh out of school from an elite school, and you get paid an awful lot money to go to these companies. But again, if you’re not about profit-maximization but working on something that you really care about, yes, you can make a decent living and…we have lots of people who work for Benetech who work around the country and take advantage of the flexibility of working from home. Many of our employees with disabilities are actually working from home rather than living in a very high-cost area like Silicon Valley that doesn’t have great transit. They can take a different place and do a great job, because frankly, given the kind of technology we have today, your online presence doesn’t look much different whether you’re in Chicago or New York or down the hall here in Palo Alto.
Francis: One of the things that I try to do in this show is create almost like a brainstorming kind of moment, at times where you’re maybe even like theorizing about how the future could be and how…either what technology you would predict, or importantly, what technology that isn’t being used right now that if implemented, could make huge changes for the better.
Jim: I tend to be more practical…even…
Chris: This gives you the chance to step into speculative fiction.
Jim: (laugh) Alright, this is my Atwood moment.
Francis: This is the show where, that we’re up for that.
Jim: The thing that really excites me about technology and the directions that we’re going with sensors, with better medical technology, with better data collection technology, with better machine learning technology, is that the idea that we would be able to understand social problems at a far more detailed level, is very exciting and a bit terrifying, right? So the challenge to us going ahead is, how could we use knowing everything we possibly might want to know about a social challenge, and then using the technology to do social good while still respecting the privacy and human rights of the people who involved. And so, I think that that is the essence of what I want to see going forward. I just love sitting down and saying, imagine we know everything, now what will we do? Because the way that we’re going, that’s actually a realistic assumption for tackling some of these problems, thanks to the incredible sensing infrastructure, data infrastructure, that we already have, that could be applied not so much to making money, but instead making life better on the planet.
Chris: Is there anything you’d like to promote or plug, whether it’s something you’re working on or something that other people are working on?
Jim: I think the thing that I want to “plug” is that people should get more involved in using technology explicitly to do social good. I think that it’s something that’s in many people’s hearts, and they feel like it’s like almost they don’t have permission to do that…I want to give people permission to go out and find a way to make a living while doing really great things through technology.
Chris: Excellent. And with that, thank you so much for coming on Making Better, Jim.
Jim: I’m glad to be part of it. Thanks.
Welcome to the Making Better podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.
Francis: Hey Chris.
Chris: Hey, Francis.
Francis: So today I’m very excited, we have author M.E. Thomas, who wrote Confessions of a Sociopath, A Life Hiding in Plain Sight. When you hear the term “sociopath,” what comes to mind?
Chris: I would think it’s somebody who’s either a criminal, highly manipulative, or…generally evil. But that was before we had our conversation with M.E., and a lot changed in my mind in that hour.
Francis: So with that in mind, why don’t we just jump straight into the interview today.
Francis: Hello! I’m really delighted to have M.E. on today. So welcome to the show…
M.E. Thank you.
Francis: Just to start, for people aren’t…haven’t read your book, or…would you like to introduce yourself, your background?
M.E. Yeah, sure. So I, I guess starting at the very beginning, I’m a westerner, grew up in California. I’m Mormon, the church actually is trying to get us to say the full name of the church, so I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I was born into it, raised into it. I have pioneer ancestors. I’m a musician, I majored in music and then I went to law school, and I happen to be a diagnosed sociopath, or anti-social personality disorder.
Francis: I guess what I’d want to start with is just maybe your thoughts about neuro-diversity…and just like the spectrum, even among sociopathy and how it’s generalized.
M.E. OK. It’s an interesting question for me, because I didn’t even realize that I was different, or how I was different, until kind of a later age. So I’ll just quickly walk you through that. Like, when I was a child I always thought that I was different but I mostly thought that maybe I was just smart. I am pretty smart, like in the way that I perform well on standardized tests, or whatever. There were just kind of things, you know, that other children didn’t see that I saw, and vice versa, honestly. I just had different blind spots than other people. So I mostly just grew up with a different perspective. It wasn’t until I was in law school, and I was sharing an office space with this other law student—we were both law students doing a clerkship at the time—and we were really bored, because they honestly only had like five to ten hours of work for us to do a week, but we had still be there. And during that time, we just talked about everything. She was really interesting, you know, she had a degree in theology, she was gay, though…and had grown up kind of during this era in which it wasn’t OK to be gay, so a little bit older. And after, you know, weeks of talking about basically everything, she said you might want to consider the possibility that you’re a sociopath. So I looked it up and I thought, wow, this really fits.
But I didn’t think of it as a disability at the time, I didn’t really think much of it at the time, which is probably kind of typical sociopathic reaction, to not really care about personal details in my life. And it wasn’t until maybe, it was about five years later that I was having some difficulties in my life. I had work problems, getting fired or kind of let go from a job, or relationship problems, long term friendship problems, romantic relationship problems…and all these things falling apart at the same time. And I started to notice a pattern, I started to notice, hey, this is not the first time this had happened. And in fact it happens about every three years. So to that extent I started thinking maybe there’s something to this sociopathy thing, maybe I should look into it, and maybe this is..this is somehow contributing to the fact that I, every three years, kind of have this cyclical self-destructive way of living. And I thought, too, you know, I’m getting older. When I was younger it was fine to self-destruct like that, because it’s more expected, people…other people were doing it, you know, it’s fine to total your car, you know, everybody does it kind of once in their teenage years. But you can’t kind of keep doing that as you become an adult. It was starting to become apparent to me, you know, it was starting to have more lasting consequences for me. And so I looked into it, I started a blog, which was sort of a journal I guess of researching different aspects about sociopathy. And the other reason I started the blog was I thought, you know, the stuff that I read, kind of online at the time—this was like 2008—so this is…there isn’t a lot written online, but the stuff that you did read was pretty negative, almost uniformly negative. And it said it wasn’t treatable, and it said, you know, there’s nothing that we can do for these people, and they’re just, you know, essentially a plague on society. And the best that society can hope for is being able to identify sociopaths and essentially set them up on an island together, you know, to live out their lives. Or people talk about, you know, just round ‘em up and kill ‘em, that sort of stuff. And I thought, that’s not been my experience. You know, I found out a lot of the research on sociopathy has been done on male prisoners. I don’t think, to this day, there’s research been done that either looks directly at the female population, or includes a significant female population. So then, you know there’s just, like, a lot that we don’t know about sociopathy. I think there’s a lot that we don’t know about disabilities in general, and the role that they kind of play in society, and the different things that people can do with a brain that’s wired differently. And I think it’s kind of…myopic to think, you know, there’s an optimal human. It’s like, what is optimal today is not necessarily going to be optimal tomorrow, etc. In fact I worked for a nonprofit, sometimes, do some work for them, legal work, and they quote this, I forget what the exact statistic…something like 60% of jobs that kids today will be doing when they’re adults don’t even exist yet. So they’re kind of suggesting, you know, like, we can’t just train people, we can’t take ‘em at eight years old and say, ok, this is the job that you’re going to be when you’re an adult, and we’re going to give you the education and training necessary to, you know, optimize that particular performance of that job, because we don’t know that that exists. So I think that sort of suggests that there’s a little bit of hubris in thinking that there’s going to be an optimal human, and thinking that the circumstances that we currently live in are going to be the circumstances of tomorrow, essentially. So I guess I think, in terms of neuro-diversity, you’re basically hedging your bets as a society. I think there’s the moral, kind of, reason for why we are interested in neuro-diversity, which is that all human life has value, you know. If you think that, then naturally you’re going to be on the side of neuro-diversity, but I think there’s also a good strategic way of thinking about neuro-diversity, which is that there’s sometimes situations in which you want a certain type of personality or a skillset or experience; the more diverse it is, the greater chance society has of surviving. Just a quick funny kind of example: so one of my friends recently had a birthday party for stepchildren. And she does not get along with the ex-wife, right? And the ex-wife was going to be coming to her house, and the ex-wife before has come to her house and given her the silent treatment, and like treated her like trash. So she’s like, you know “I really want you to come, M.E., to this birthday party”…essentially—maybe you guys can kind of guess—to talk to the ex-wife, to put her down in subtle ways, you know, to basically check any attempts that she had about, you know, these little micro-agressions, and to, like, you know, instill my own—her own sense of fear about, you know, messing with this situation. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to come…
Chris: I’ve been invited to parties just to be the asshole..
M.E. Right. But being an asshole sometimes is terrible, you know, in social situations, and sometimes it’s really, really useful. I think most people can kind of understand, you know, you’re in a terrible work situation, or you’re, you know, you’re in a terrible like public situation, like one time—same friend—we were dining, we were eating Thai food, really one of these kind of hole-in-the-wall places with eight tables. We happened to be seated right next to these other two women. And then halfway through their meal, they turned over and said to my friend—and I think they had, like they had every moral justification in the world to say this, but they said—“you know what? you have a really annoying voice, and your voice has been annoying me this entire time that you’ve been talking during dinner. You have ruined this meal for me.” And …
Francis: Oh my god.
M.E. I know! (laughing) I went off on those people! I’m just, you know, not afraid of confrontation, you know, I just—I don’t even think I was rude. I didn’t yell, I didn’t get emotional, I just, you know, cut them to the quick,” that’s unacceptable, please leave now. Now they’re faced with this situation where they thought—who knows what they thought when they said that? They thought she was going to stop talking, maybe, or apologize, or whatever it is. But it’s just, you know, sometimes it is, like you say, it pays to be an asshole, or it pays to have an asshole around, I guess.
Francis: As long as you’re not a dick.
M.E. Right. (laugh)
Francis: The dick thing I don’t know if scientists have come up with whether it’s a nature vs. nurture thing, but in the absence of having a moral …a morality that’s universal and religiously based, I think a lot of people have whittled it down now to just, “don’t be a dick,” is sort of like enough for society to function with.
Chris: “Wheaton’s Law” comes up so often….
M.E. What is Wheaton’s Law?
Chris: Don’t Be A Dick.
M.E. Oh, ok.
Chris: It’s Will Wheaton, the actor from Star Trek. He did a presentation at a conference a number of years ago, just called “Don’t Be A Dick.”
M.E. (laughs) What is his definition of being a dick? I’m curious, because in this idea of, like, making things better, that you are all, are interested in, I often wonder, you know, what is the acceptable kind of neutral behavior, you know? And like you say, in the absence of having like a religious morality or, you know, in this world in which we’re trying to kind of look for that neutral morality, well what does it mean to be a dick? Like what are the things we can say, you know, never do this behavior, this behavior is not acceptable. Since we’re saying that so much behavior is acceptable in certain circumstances.
Chris: One of the things we in the humanist community are constantly wrestling with is how to prove to people that we can be “good without God” and how we actually do have an ethical framework and things like that. So when we’re encountering somebody with what we would believe to be irrational beliefs—you know, somebody who believes in a flat earth or somebody who denies climate change, or—you’re not going to convince people to become critical thinkers by being a dick. You know, don’t go up to them and say, “you’re stupid.” Maybe try to engage in a conversation with them about why they believe in what they believe, and maybe try to point out the logical fallacies and hope that they come around to our side.
M.E. Right. Yeah, I can see a, one thing that I have been thinking about recently, you know, and has like kind of a religious kind of coloring to it, the belief, it definitely comes from a religious perspective, but I think it’s interesting when you think about, like, the idea of how can we have a happier society, like a sort of utopia type society? Religiously, that’s what we think of heaven. Right? Heaven, and the Mormons are interesting, they have like a very practical idea, I think, about heaven. They’re almost kind of like science fiction-y the way they view heaven. They think of heaven as being just like a place where people are much more advanced, right? You’re much more advanced to the point where you’re, you’re essentially like, god-like. Right? And how do you have a society in which people have such great powers? You know, they’re very kind of god-like, but you don’t end up with wars and destruction. You know, you don’t end up with them getting so advanced, so powerful, that one person can sort of like set off a chain reaction and destroy everything. And in Mormonism, the concept is, you cannot interfere with other people’s agency. That is the one sort of “don’t be dick” rule, is that no matter what you do you have to allow the other person freedom. Right? You can’t impede on their own autonomy, I guess. So whatever you do, it can’t affect their own ability to do whatever it is t hat they want, or to be essentially unmolested. You know, like you have to make sure that all your actions and choices don’t affect others, or if they do affect others, that there’s some sort of consent. That you’re not infringing on somebody’s agency that way, which I think is a really interesting concept, and it’s a concept that I feel like has been…popular before, maybe, you know, there have been some movements in which it’s been popular, like, just “Don’t Tread on Me.” Right? Or even the Tea Party movement, which I think first started off with being, you know, like live and let live, and then kind of twisted to different things.
Chris: I hear similar ethical frameworks described, certainly by Unitarians, where belief in a god is optional but an ethical lifestyle is the most important thing. And I hear it at humanist events, really often, is, you know, in our “good without god” is, you know, here’s an ethical framework. It reminds me a lot of how you described your relationship with Mormonism in the book, in that it provides, you know, a set of guidelines for living and also gives you the rational reasons behind them.
M.E. Right. Exactly. It’s interesting that you say these things about ethics, but what…what are the rational reasons? You know, like, there are different…I guess if you are a, you know, sort of utilitarianism, right? Then there’s going to be a different kind of outcome that you’re looking for. Right? And that’s where the ethics come in, is that we’re looking for the outcome that allows for, you know, the best ultimate utility, right? And I guess Mormonism, the interesting kind of twist they have on it is this, this real focus on agency and autonomy. “Cause in Mormonism they have a belief, actually, that there was a war in heaven, and it’s interesting kind of thinking about where we are socially. You know, World War I, I think a lot of people don’t really understand what were the causes of that war. It seemed like people were just eager to go to war, right? World War II, there’s a greater kind of understanding of what the causes were, because they related to the aftereffects of World War I, which were so terrible. And now we have nuclear bombs, and I think the concern is—and I was just watching a Rick and Morty episode (laugh) where they reference this—you know, you’re going to get so advanced that you’re basically going to be able to bomb yourself out of existence. Right? The concern is that, you know, we have gotten so advanced that we have the real capacity to harm ourselves irreparably, as a society. That’s kind of the concern, and I guess the ethics, especially if you are going to talk about a utopia that would be so advanced, that would be a major concern. How can we avoid having these sorts of wars, or major conflict happen. And I think the simple Mormon answer, but it kind of makes sense to me logically, too, is that you just, you can’t interfere with other people’s agency. Like if somebody wants to—and this is the thing that I think is so hard for people to kind of get behind, today–is to allow somebody to be a racist. You know, this idea, and I talk about it actually in my classes that I teach, paralegal classes, is it OK to punch a Nazi? I would have thought the answer, from anybody who had, like, any sense of ethics, would be “no.” It’s never OK, like the ends don’t justify the means, right? Even if they’re a Nazi, you still, you still can’t punch them. Right? We have a legal system, right, where we hold people accountable in various ways, but you’re not a vigilante, you know. We don’t believe in vigilanteism, that’s why we have the legal system that we do, and all of its checks and balances, right? And the police system that we do, and all these things are intended to get to this point where we’re not just punching the wrong people, I guess, or you know, like people aren’t taking it upon themselves to inflict violence on others. But even rather well-meaning people, I hear them say, “yeah, it’s OK to punch a Nazi,” that’s an OK thing. And part of it I think comes from this idea that, you know, if you don’t fight bad things, you know, and fight them just as dirty, you know, as they’re trying to fight against you, then there’s going to be something that…bad happening. But I think a lot of it comes from just this feeling that you don’t like Nazis. You know, you don’t like Nazis, you don’t approve of the way that they are, you don’t agree with their beliefs, and you have a hard time existing in a world with Nazis. It makes you angry, you know, makes these people angry to live in a world with Nazis, and it offends them personally, too. I’ve heard people, and you know, there’s kind of a funny joke people say, you know, on Twitter, I guess a little bit of a meme, where they’ll say, you know I’m personally offended. Somebody says, you know, I eat my McDonald’s french fries this way, with the ketchup, and you know that’s disgusting, and they’re “oh, I’m personally offended.” You know? They’re…and it’s a joke, right? It’s meant to be a joke, but it’s also kind of true-ish, that people are getting personally offended, they feel personally attacked when they’re kind of called out about certain things. Or when there’s other people existing in the world that have nothing to do with them, you know, they’re just speaking, for instance, at a, the university that this person might be attending. They express feelings of, like, personal hurt, you know, or that they would be traumatized to have that person speak at the university. There’s something of like a personal trauma that they’re experiencing. That sort of thing, I think, wow. That would be a real impediment to allowing people to have the free agency, because if somebody wants to believe, you know, somebody wants to be a Nazi, why is that like a personally offensive thing to you? You may find it offensive, or you may find it logically, you know, like Nazism doesn’t make sense, logically. Or here are the other reasons why I find it distasteful or evil or wrong, that’s fine. You can have an opinion, but why does it offend you that somebody else’s opinion is different, I think is a really interesting question, and I think something that, you know, a sociopath would never experience. You know, so this seems really weird to me, to see it in so many people, it’s almost like this weird malady, like some sort of sickness like plague that’s spreading throughout, psychologically, throughout the community, especially I think in millenials, but not exclusively. You know, there are plenty of old, especially the stereotype old white people, who have similar thoughts. You know, they can’t stand the thought that there’s this gay couple next door that are raising their child with neutral gender pronouns, and have not told the child whether the child is a boy or a girl. There are plenty of people being offended by that, or the anti-vaccine people…you know, people get, want to kind of get angry about these things, and I guess I just don’t understand it. If somebody wants to do something, and it’s not infringing your agency, then why? And they’ll go through a lot of kind of mental leaps to get to the point where they’re saying, no, these people are affecting me. Because, you know, one Nazi’s gonna turn to ten, is gonna turn to 100 and eventually I’m going to end up in a totalitarian society of Nazism, and that will affect me. But I just don’t see it, and I especially don’t see how urgent it is from the one Nazi to you need to punch them. You kind of, what you were saying about “good without god” and these ethical lifestyles, and like this idea of trying to convince people to “don’t be a dick,” you know, with their irrational beliefs, you’re not going to convince people by punching them. It’s like an absolutely ineffective tool that they’re choosing to use, too. You know what, I think it kind of is, and it stems from like my own experience with sociopathy. I essentially think most personality disorders, from what I’ve learned, from what I’ve known, from what I’ve experienced and the people that I’ve met, I think most personality disorders involve an issue with the sense of self, with the sense of identity. Right? I think that’s why they’re called personality disorders, right? Like a narcissist has a false sense of self, there are other ways that people kind of distort their view of self in other personality disorders. For a sociopath, there’s just a very weak sense of self, there’s like, almost, like, you’re not an actual person, you’re just like, like a hologram or like a cypher. You know, an illusion—or you’re like, water or something. You take the shape of whatever vessel that you happen to be in.
Francis: People identify with their programming a lot of the time. Like, they’re born into a culture, they’re born into a sexuality or, you know, like they’re male, they’re female, they’re from this class; there are all these things that are sort of accidental, almost. They were just born into it, and then they identify with that. But how much of that is real in terms of what their potential to be anything is, you know what I mean? And what if, in that regard, sociopathy is more of an awareness that these are things that are almost like accidents that were put upon the human consciousness of this child, and then they identified themselves with it. Whereas, if you don’t grasp on to all that is like, this is me, then you have to figure it out for yourself.
M.E. Yeah, I think that’s definitely true. I wouldn’t say that that’s all that sociopathy is, but i think because they have such a weak sense of self, and there are other problems that are created by the weak sense of self. But I think one of the advantages is that they don’t feel like ego-hurts, for instance. You know, sometimes on the internet I guess we call it butt-hurt; you know, somebody gets so incensed because, you know, they feel like their ego, somebody has been challenging, kind of, their sense of identity, their sense of self. And that’s, is what sets them off so badly. I think we see it in politics a lot, when people have, you know, outrageous reactions, or people have these sort of temper tantrums. This idea that somebody has offended you—for whatever reason, like you said—because, you know, let’s say they’re American, and they identify so strongly with being an American, that whenever anybody says something slightly, what they consider to be unpatriotic, then they kind of flip out, you know, and they’re personally offended by it, because, you know, they’re an American. I think it is true, like a lot of these things are kind of…accidents, and I think the sociopath acknowledges it. I’ve never identified, for instance, strongly actually with my religion, even though I am interested in the religious beliefs, I’m interested in the theology, and the different kind of playing out those ideas—I never think of myself as being like, super-Mormon. I guess. Right? Like if somebody insulted Mormons or were like, “oh yeah, Mormons, polygamy, multiple wives, whatever,” I’d be like, “yeah, maybe this is true” right? (laugh) I wouldn’t take it personally. I have never identified for instance with my gender, either, and I think it’s one of the reasons why I wouldn’t either consider myself bisexual, because it’s not like I think of other people as having these very strict kind of gender roles, either. I don’t think of myself as being “I’m a libertarian” politically, but I don’t think of myself as being libertarian, in fact I used to never vote at all. I used to kind of just be like, these are things that are happening, and there’s not that much I can do, and kind of, who cares? You know, like I never had like these strong kind of beliefs or sense of identity. And these strong beliefs and sense of identity, I think, do harm people in particular ways. There’s kind of a concept…Paul Graham, if you google this you can read his article, it’s a really short article, and he says keep your identity small. And he’s just kind of suggesting there are certain things that you strongly identify with, for instance you love the Steelers, or something, you’re such a huge Steelers fan, if somebody says something bad about the Steelers, it can really incense you. Right, it’s going to trigger you emotionally, you’re going to have a particular kind of emotional, irrational reactions to somebody suggesting, you know, that the Steelers aren’t as good as you think they are, for whatever reason. And we see it in Europe all the time, with the football hooliganism, these soccer teams that hate each other so much that they’re like getting in fights in which people end up dying. And it seems so kind of absurd, but it’s like, if that’s what you identify so strongly with, then it’s not so different than, for instance, nationalism that we see today, where people are willing to kind of like shut off their empathy to, like, huge swaths of people just because they’re not part of their identity, and they want to maintain the identity they do have, which is a certain view of what it means to be Norwegian, or a certain view of what it means to be an American. And they kind of want to freeze in time this 2010 or 2019, whatever their view is, like, this is the perfect way to be Norwegian, we want to go back to the 1940s in terms of what it means to be Norwegian. They identify with these things so strongly that they’re willing to do similar sort of thing where the ends justify the means. They’re willing to infringe on somebody’s agency, they’re willing to punch somebody, they’re willing to, uh, hurt somebody in a way that I find to be…I don’t identify with it at all. Like, I don’t understand what’s going on there psychologically. I think there’s definitely something going on, but I think it’s an interesting concept sociopaths don’t have, other people do have.
Francis: One of the key things we’ve been talking about is, what are the things that are blocking our progress toward a more utopian society, and this idea that people can’t coexist or that people should persuade each other to be more like them, are not really true, and huge impediments…so, I’ve been liking the metaphor of the mosaic, and you know, like, when you talk about neuro-diversity, what’s great about that is you, you’re saying like on a biological level we’re even different. But that’s fine, and people will have strengths in ways that you might not, because they are different. And this idea that we’re all the same, or that we’re all capable of fitting into this monoculture and being happy, is absurd. And once you move past that, and say OK, the reality is we are different from each other and that’s cool…you know, like it kind of opens it up to not be intimidated and appalled by differences in the way that those people that used to pick on us and beat us, you know, want to beat us up, Where they saw us as a challenge to their own identity, as opposed to saying, wow, you know, that guy is onto something really creative, and you know, I would never in a million years feel comfortable walking down the street dressed like that but I’m really happy there’s someone who does, something like that, you know? But for some reason, it was seen instead as a challenge, and that’s I think one of the important things that we have to get rid of. And you know, this idea that we can’t accept certain types of people is problematic. You know, there wil be people who may be, initally at least in a more utopian direction, identify themselves as like, you know, Aryan-ness or whatever. But I think ultimately, once you take away the dangerousness or the anti-social-ness of it, a lot of them might lose interest in being Nazis. Or maybe they won’t, who cares, you know? If somebody wants to go live with their own race, I don’t think anybody has a right to say you can’t do that. And one of the failings of the left, I think, is that they are so black and white about things that when it comes to people having freedom of choice, it just even can’t happen, because there’s all these rules of what’s right and wrong in a politically correct context.
M.E. Yeah, I agree. this is kind of an interesting story, right. So when the book comes out, I quickly get outed as a sociopath by some of my law students. And it gets on this legal gossip blog, and I start getting phone calls, I start getting emails from people who are finding this out. And some of them are really positive and nice, you know, and I still think these people are great people and I really respect them.
Chris: I think anyone who spends the time to actually read your book is going to have a much more positive view of you as a sociopath than somebody who didn’t. I think the book really answers a whole lot of questions, just the average man on the street wouldn’t think, had he not read the book.
M.E. Yeah.I hoped that that was true, and I think it is true for a large proportion of people, but I think there’s still more than I thought, there was still a proportion of people who, for whatever reason—and you know, confirmation bias we know, if you have a previous belief it’s really hard to let go of that belief. Certain types of people are more open than others, certain types of people hold more rigidly to their previously conceived beliefs than others, for various reasons or in various contexts. And so there was kind of a negative reaction. But I had kind of hedged my bets a little bit with this, you know I was a law professor, wanted to stay a law professor. Was hoping I would stay a law professor—the end of the story is, no, I did not stay a law professor, right. So that kind of, uh, clues you in to how people ultimately reacted. But one of the schools I taught at was in San Francisco, I was there as a visiting professor, and I intentionally chose to visit there, because I thought, well in hedging my bets, you know if I have connections with more law schools where they know me personally, there’s a greater chance for instance that this school would end up hiring me even after the book was done, And I thought, San Francisco, liberal San Francisco, right? They’ll for sure be able to look at this and think, hey, you know this person is a…you know, neuro-diversity, we’re pro-diversity and we’re pro- people being able to be the people that they were born as, right? You know, we’re willing to support that, I thought that was maybe going to happen. But they had the worst reaction of everybody…they banned me from the campus, they not only banned me from the campus, they banned me from being a thousand yards from the campus. It was like the entire downtown San Francisco area they allegedly banned me from and said that they would call the police if I, you know, crossed that boundary. Of course that’s not legal. There’s nothing legal or right or rational about it. If you read the email they sent me, it was just such an irrational kind of knee-jerk reaction, which was just kind of like, sociopath=bad for whatever reason.I’m not sure what their sort of reason is, but there was something triggering about the very fact that I was, like, a sociopath that they just found so unpalatable, not just unpalatable, but dangerous, you know, unpredictable, who knows what it was. They went to the extent of violating so many of my civil rights, or at least purporting to violate my civil rights, for just having a published this particular book. It’s a really interesting reaction, and it’s one, I don’t think it’s indicative of all kind of reactions, or like a liberal progressive thing. When I think about—and it is true, you know, politics, like both parties seem very black-and-white thinking, in kind of unpredictable ways for me, I guess that’s why I’m a libertarian is, because I don’t understand how you can have a certain stance on the death penalty and abortion, for instance. (laughs) Which both parties have, which seem to contradict each other, a little bit, right? So these sorts of reactions, you know, the reaction that these people had, like why is it so threatening to them that I’m a sociopath? I don’t have a criminal record, I have no history, past history of violence, and to have that sort of reaction where you’re just like, you know, I can’t even stand to be around you. I said, OK, I’ll just come pick up my things or something. They said no, we will mail you your things. It was that bad. And I was like, OK, well I still need to like grade my finals, and they’re like, you’re gonna need to do that, you know, a thousand yards away from campus, you know, never come back sort of thing. And I….I even said, you know, I feel like you’re having an overreaction, they were like, no, we have thought about this a lot, you know, we’ve considered it. So it’s an interesting thing, in this world in which we allow for neuro-diversity, would that be something that is acceptable to do? They have a fear, and that’s what I kind of understood. You know, they have a—I don’t think I’ll say, legitimate, they had a legitimate fear in the sense that it was an authentic fear. They were feeling fear. They had like an actual sense of fear, but it was an unjustified sense of fear, right? Same with these people with the identity. They have a hurt, you know, they feel personally offended, but is it like a feeling of personal offense that we can kind of get behind and say, OK, you know, we’re going to allow you to feel personally offended and act however you want. Hit a Nazi. It’s fine to have the feeling, I guess, but then the action cannot be to infringe on people’s identity…er, I’m sorry, sense of agency. Even if it is, you know, you have that fear, you have that hurt, you have these various feelings.
Chris: So I was just sort of wondering how you felt neuro-diversity might fit in with diversity in general, because people with disabilities are the only minority who intersects with every other minority, and is also oppressed by every other minority.
M.E. Yeah, that’s a good point. You know, it’s interesting, I didn’t even think about it, but it’s like, even within neuro-diversity, people who say that they’re pro-neuro-diversity, they don’t like sociopaths. You know, it’s fine if you’re austistic—you know, in fact I have a Downs Syndrome uncle, I write a little bit about him in the book, he has violent tendencies that were so severe that he could no longer stay with my aunt, who was his caretaker. He had to go to an institution basically. And do I think that people with Deans Syndrome are all violent? No. But do I think that violence manifests itself in a way that’s kind of different to him, you know, with Downs Syndrome? Yeah, because we can’t call the cops, we can’t throw him in prison, we don’t have, kind of, these avenues that we have with people who, who don’t kind of have disabilities. I just think it’s a really interesting way to treat people. Like there are true differences in the way that we treat people—I think it’s great that we’re not throwing him in prison, but I think it’s also weird that we throw people in prison who are sociopaths, then, right? Because they also have unique kind of issues; they don’t respond well to punishment, just like my Downs Syndrome uncle. I think it’s so great that people have become so, kind of open minded about children with autism now, right? I think it’s great for the children, I think it’s great because it was like, kind of a kicking a wall, you know, to try to force these kids to behave like normal kids, and for what reason? You know, who is it benefitting? To try to get them to kind of conform to these, like, ideas of what a good kid should be in a educational setting, 32.5 kids per class or whatever, and they’re all sitting there with their workbooks. You know it’s such, so weird how we’ve gotten rigid about these ideas, but it…yeah, I find it…hmm…a little appalling that the same people who promote neuro-diversity in one area, and seem to be so, kind of, accepting and willing to accept, are the same people who are banning me from campus, a thousand yards from being on campus. It’s such an overreaction to me.
Francis: That kind of awareness issue, don’t you think?
M.E. If I thought—and this is kind of a little bit of jaded—part of my legal research was actually in information sharing, and misinformation, right? And what we can do about, kind of, free speech issues, you know, like what does the law have to do with free speech and do we really think that there’s a marketplace, a functioning marketplace of ideas, such that good ideas survive and bad ideas eventually kind of die out. And I think, you know, in the past five to seven, ten years, we’ve seen a lot of social behavior that suggests that our previous conceptions that people are really looking for truth and for facts—they’re not completely false, you know, like I think people still prefer the truth generally speaking, but there are situations in which they don’t. So it’s a misinformation thing, but I think there’s something else underlying their…reluctance to give the same kind of neuro-diversity privileges to other people. I’m really interested, I don’t have like an answer on it, but I think it is an issue when I was so interested in this concept of trying to make a better society and kind of, what would it look like? Of a utopian society and, uh, kind of the science behind it. Are there impediments to that—scientific, psychological, resource, economics, to having this kind of utopian society, and I immediately started thinking of these, because it’s been something that I have grown up all my life seeing, kind of the back side, the hypocrisy, of empathy. You know, the hypocrisy of compassion, right? The hypocrisy of these, you know, like these good feelings, kind of tribalism, you know, the negatives. Even before other people saw it, I saw it. Mob mentality has been, like, my constant fear, you know the idea that—and we know that it happens, you know, it happens to normal people, where they all just happen to gang up.
Francis: Well, I consider myself highly empathetic, and I would consider mob mentality one particular expression of empathy. I don’t think you’d have mob otherwise.
M.E. Yeah. (laugh) I agree, but I want to hear your ideas on it. Like go ahead and explain it.
Francis: Well, the thing is, empathy connects people. It makes you feel their feelings, but empathy is also sort of like an on-off switch. And if you can identify an idea of different people as “other,” then you can feel empathy towards your tribe and then no empathy at all, if anything like the opposite, towards them. You know, which is why in every war, they try to like de-humanize them, make the enemy seem like they’re really different on some fundamental level. And, you know, what they’ll do is they’ll whip up the empathy like they did in the lead up to the Iraq wars, where, you know just saturated you with the 9-11 stuff and the personal stories of how these horrible terrorists who like, they hate freedom, they want to do this, they attacked our homeland—and it’s like an empathetic response towards the people that were suffering on such a intense degree, that raises that mob mentality, where they “yeah, let’s kill ‘em!” You know? But I think if you didn’t have empathy at all, that wouldn’t be possible, because you’d be like, rational, and you’d be like, um…you know, you’re not subject to that same level of mob and tribalness.
M.E. Yeah. You know, I’ll take it one step further, I think it’s like not just empathy maybe, although I think it has a role, and say it’s also this, this kind of sense of identity. Because you think, would a mercenary fight as well as somebody who’s a true believer? You know, we see true believers doing outrageous things, you know, horrible things, 9-11, for instance. Right? Because they identify so strongly, they think this is like the absolute truth, and I’m going to impose this truth on everybody. You know, the infidels, the non-believers, they have to hear this message and the best way to reach them, I guess, is to kill them—that’s kind of the attitude. We used to think of that attitude as being associated mostly with extremists and terrorists, but now we’re like out there punching Nazis, right? I think Antifa is one of the most terroristic organizations that we have operating in the United States. But I don’t think it’s condemned often enough, to like go out there are commit violence against people who have opposing viewpoints to yours?
Chris: I don’t think Antifa has enough power or actual organizational capabilities to be a real threat.
M.E. I hope that’s true. (laugh)
Chris: I think they’re a bunch of kids who show up looking for a fight, and…we had that back in the 60s with the counter-revolutionaries showing up to start violence and…you know, I think they’re just troublemakers.
M.E. Hmm. I hope.
Francis: As Joe Strummer once said, they’re kind of Stalinist, maybe.
M.E. Stalinists in what way?
Francis: In the sense that, like, they, they act like they’re for the people and for like these higher values, but they’ll like squash you if you think differently.
M.E. Right, exactly. You know, I have a little brother who is solidly hipster Millennial, and I kind of use him as, you know, keep my fingers on the pulse (laugh) of that type of generational, like…he’s socialist, you know, he loves Bernie Sanders, the…kind of, this type of thinking, right? Which I don’t think is necessarily bad, it’s just like there’s a particular type of group of people that I think are associated with those kind of beliefs. And I think they’re sympathetic to Antifa, I think these younger people are kind of like…you know, I keep repeating it, but it’s like the “ends justify the means,” this concept of, we’re in this fight, good and evil, and we are on the side of good, and the people who disagree with us are necessarily evil.
Chris: I don’t trust Bernie Sanders, ‘cause he reminds me too much of myself. He’s an old man with messy hair who talks about things he can’t deliver.
M.E. Um-hm. (laughs)
Francis: I think the, the reason why people do find some sort of inspiration in Antifa is that, you know, there’s been this like, mechanism that’s been going on for a long time where the right wing are like street fighters, like they just want to win, they don’t give a fuck how they’ll go about it, if they win, they win. The left is like, you know we have to be democratic, reach across the aisle, and provide like persuasive arguments and data, and all this stuff, and when it gets down to the fight, they get their asses kicked, because, I mean, they’re bound in a way that people who are like street fighters are not bound. It seems like there are people who are willing to have the strength of their convictions enough to really fight for them. I’m not saying that that’s a good thing necessarily in this situation, but I also think there is a frustration amongst people on the left that, they’re just getting steamrolled.
M.E. Yeah. I see that, I see kind of why they feel that way, you know I don’t think it’s completely irrational, but I, I guess I disagree with that kind of attitude that they’re gettting steamrolled. They kind of, and this is..it’s, again, I think it’s this idea of identity and maybe identity politics, now that we’re talking about politics, is that any kind of—if you have such a strong belief that, you know, the people that oppose you, you know, it’s almost like a zero-sum game. You know, any gains that the right makes, you know, makes the left feel like they’re getting steamrolled, and I’m thinking, you know, not really. You know, what happened to, like, compromises and concessions, like most people would think of that as being pretty weak now. And they’re so sick of the compromises and concessions, that they think that they’re constantly getting ripped off. Whereas the left, they’ve had control of the Supreme Court basically since the Warren Court, right? Roe v. Wade and they’ve maintained that for decades and decades, right? Now they’re upset at the thought of that ending. They don’t kind of see that they’ve had their way, essentially, for the past, what is it, like four or five decades, starting with Brown vs. Board of Education. I think, controversially, and you can, controversially I say, but you can find Ginsberg also saying similar sorts of things about some of these cases, these big cases that even, you know, people who haven’t gone to law school know about. Some of the ways that the Supreme Court kind of justified—they’re not good methods. They broke particular judicial norms, you know, which is something we keep hearing about, you know, we’re breaking these norms, and it’s again kind of like the ends justify the means, right? Like we’ll be a little bit underhanded about the way that we go about kind of getting this result, because we’re so in…we’re so interested in the result. And I don’t think that that can happen ever. My kind of—and this is kind of a Stoic philosophy, too—is that it always has to be process-oriented, it can’t be result-oriented. Because if it’s result-oriented, then it really does turn into this kind of like zero-sum game. You can’t reach across the aisle if you want something and they want something else, you know, it always has to be a compromise. There can’t ever be, like, well let’s think about ways that we can like engage in this process and get someplace that, you know, neither one of us can even see right now. But it’s gonna be ultimately a better place than the current vision that we both have. Does that kind of make sense?
Francis: Yeah. And you know it’s a little bit dualistic to, to me in my mind, like we’re…we’re trying to come up with the uptopia where everybody gets to decide who they are, everybody respects everybody’s personal decision on who they are, and we have a society that it gives them the resources to actualize that life in a really exciting, fulfilling way. Or, you have this idea that, you know, it’s my way or your way, and it can’t be both ways. And actually, in reality, it can be both ways a lot of the time. And that’s why our system is failing I think.
M.E. Yeah. This idea of, just, coexisting seems to be kind of getting pushed out the window, there’s—I don’t know why, is it social media? We’re like, we can’t stand, you know, the cousin on Facebook or whatever who has different political beliefs than us, or something, and so people are just getting so incensed about it. They’re getting outraged, you know, we’re being steamrolled, where all it is is just (laugh) it’s just kind of like the natural shifts of power. I guess I just don’t see where anybody’s getting steamrolled, but both parties think that they are, because in the zero sum game, any time that the left wins, the right loses. Any time the right wins, the left loses. That’s kind of the attitude that people have. There’s no longer this idea of, like, hey we have a Constitutional Republic democracy, and this is the process, and if you didn’t like the result this time, then we have particular institutions that have been around for centuries, you know, that you can use and work within those institutions to enact the change. Now people are talking about, uou know, again, my little brother, who I think is a good indicator, kind of barometer of the way people are thinking, has just like, he thinks that the government is essentially useless Constitution garbage, you know, because it doesn’t lead to the result he wants. And that’s kind of, the mentality you have seen increase everywhere, where people are thinking constantly about the ends, they’re no longer thinking about means that we have been talking about. You know, how can you live a meaningful life, how can you live a life of fulfillment and purpose, and not have it being impeded by others. You know, like not have other people be offended by the fact that…
Francis: ..Or anyone’s business…
M.E. Yeah. It’s not anyone’s business. But people have made it their business, it’s gotten so popular, I think, in the past decade, to make everybody’s business your business. And I just don’t understand why.
Chris: Well, and we also live in a world where privacy no longer exists, I mean, you tried to publish a book anonymously, and how quickly were you discovered?
M.E. 24 hours (laugh), 48 hours…yeah. Definitely that same week.
Francis: Maybe what the college was angry about was that you didn’t abide by the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule.
M.E. Mmm. Do you think there is, like, still “don’t ask, don’t tell” for that sort of stuff?
Francis: Well, there’s so little awareness about it, first of all. I don’t think the true nature of the heterogeneity of human minds, of psychology, has been brought to the attention of people in general. When you’re talking about people maybe that don’t have a lot of empathy, and you know there’s always a whole spectrum to everything. My yoga teacher recently, and if you’re listening, my apologies if I’m bringing you up without asking, but, she was talking about how she works with people who are dying. She helps them with the death process, she calls it a “death dula.” And I said to her, you know, “how are you on the empathy scale? Do you have a lot of empathy, or not too much?” And she said, “ah, I don’t really have much empathy.” I said, “I guess you’re probably libertarian, right?” And she said “yup.” (laugh) But here is a woman who does, like she’s such a, like, angel, kind of, you know? Like she’s doing this job that I could not do, because I have so much empathy, I would make these people feel horrible about the fact they’re dying. She can be emotionally detached and actually do the job properly, you know. You’re like a trailblazer that you even wrote this book and got people thinking about this stuff and opened the conversation, but you just opened it as far as I can see. And it definitely, in my mind, impacts a lot on the idea of neuro-diversity and that sort of stuff, but I also feel like it’s also really, it’s beginning. You know, it’s like a nascent kind direction that we’re going in, a movement where we’re going to find that different people have different aspects of personality that we have pathologicized. You know, we take like extreme examples of it sometimes, and turn it into a disorder. But you know, it’s a spectrum. You know, like I think people don’t understand, you know like you have all these primary colors that we’re figuring out now psychologically, but you know like people don’t, I don’t think, really understand what all that means, and what’s there. And honestly, even people like me who’ve been studying this stuff and trying to like really wrap my brain around and figure out how to use this to make society better, I feel like it’s still very new, to me, the cutting edge of human consciousness in some ways.
M.E. I hope. You know, I hope that this is, this is happening. I think people are becoming more aware. I think that, again, kind of—this has been the theme of at least my comments—the impediment I can kind of see to people being more open about the possibility that other people are living equally valid lives, even though they’re making very different choices, is this concept of identity. Can you believe, for instance, can I believe that my religion has truth to it without necessarily thinking that other people’s beliefs are wrong? Can I think that one way is a good way without thinking that other peoples’ ways are bad? I think there’s kind of like a, just like a…a broadening of your perspective that needs to happen a little bit more before we’ll get to that place where society is really capable of having that degree of acceptance for neuro-diversity. It reminds me, I follow on Instagram, I think it’s called “medicalpedia” and it has a…I don’t know why I follow it, it has like all these gruesome, you know, photos. Somebody, you know, got their foot cut off in a motorcycle accident, right? And it will show–I think it’s for medical students, but it’s really interesting, I think to learn so much about the human body and the way that it’s connected by seeing it in these kind of distressed ways. And I recently saw a picture of, there was a homeless man who got brought into the hospital, and he was complaining of having a lack of sensation in his feet, and he’s also diabetic, right? And they’re taking off this sock, and underneath the sock—yeah, you can look this up—are hundreds of maggots, and I was like “what!” Like as they’re peeling away this sock, there’s just these maggots, like falling off the sock, I mean literally, like his foot is covered with maggots. And you start seeing the maggots start coming out from under the skin, you know, and you’re like, how can somebody let it get this far? I’m sorry I’m not able to attribute the source on this one, I recently read this article, this comment about this guy talking about homeless people, and his comment was basically that if you don’t understand other people’s choices, right, if somebody’s choice seems so kind of stupid and wrong to you, then you really don’t understand the full background of their situation, their environment, why they’re making that particular choice. Like if we could get to the place where, instead of just decrying everybody’s choices as being wrong, where we would try to understand why is it that you’re making this choice? You know, why did you let it get this far? What are the kind of influences that lead you to believe this politically, you know, why is it that you have this particular emotional reaction to things? If we really tried to kind of understand why, then I think we would, we’d be able to understand better how everybody has good in their choices, you know, everybody is kind of doing the best that they can, and that there really is an ethical, kind of ultimate good in allowing people to have the autonomy to live their own lives, make their choices, that there’s value in that and we don’t have to have everybody look and act and be the same.
Chris: I think that’s one of the reasons why I don’t really like labels like “left” or “right” or Democrat-Republican, blue-red, or whatever; because I think it creates a false dichotomy, and I think people have embraced that false dichotomy. I mean, I think we probably, as Americans, you know, Trump supporters and Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters, probably agree on 90% of stuff, if you asked them as individuals. And yet we join these teams, or become members of these tribes, and all of a sudden, as you were referring to earlier, it becomes a black and white, win or lose, situation.
M.E. Heh. Yeah, and it is kind of weird. Let’s say I like the Steelers so much, let’s say I like a particular member on the Steelers. In two years he’s going to be playing for, like, the Chargers or something. You know, it’s so weird that we’re kind of this way, we’re so rigid, in thinking that this moment in time is going to stay this way. You know, the Republican party is always going to be like this, the Democrat party is always going to be like this. Whenever there’s a new movement, right, we’re like, whoaoh! You know, this is shaking things up so much, and how are we going to kind of like live—I think it really just illustrates the falseness of the labeling. Right? That there isn’t so much a dichotomy as we thought before, even if there are things that are dichotomous, we’re not necessarily perceiving them correctly, they’re going to shift, possibly, and having more of this openness to the way that we understand labels. I went to Cambodia—when did I go? like 2010 or something—and at the time I had travelled kind a lot of places, but still, out of all the places I’ve travelled, it seems like the people were…and you know, I understand, I was only there for a few days, it’s hard to get an impression, but my impression of them was that they were very happy.. They were very happy, very kind of, um…content. And it was also one of the poorest places I have ever been. You know, so poor that I realized by the second day, when I saw like a little piece of plastic wrapper out in kind of these rice patty villages, I was so surprised to see it, and I was like, why am I so surprised to see this candy wrapper? And it’s because I hadn’t seen any plastic waste or any waste at all in the past, you know, 24 hours, right? So super, super poor, even compared to other SouthEast Asian countries. I kind of wondered why they’re so poor, and I thought maybe it has to do with, you know, Pol Pot and the killing fields and they had that civil war for so long that they were just sick of the violence, they had, you know, a similar sort of situation, one people trying to impose on the other types, and the types are fighting and they both think that they’re justified, and they’re willing to, you know, use violence to impose their beliefs and their worldview on other people, that can’t stand the fact that there are other people different from them. You know, very similar kind of story that seems to be behind so much conflict in the world. But after decades of this, and I think 20% of the Cambodian population was killed? And still now it has one of the highest amputee rates, right? Because they land-mined the entire country, basically. In fact, like you can still…I forget what the rates are, it’s like a thousand people a year die from land mines, and then many more end up maimed or otherwise hurt. There are like, you know, certain places are just unoccupied because of land mines, there’s like 10,000 landmines or unexploded ordnances. But they’re just sick of it, right? And so maybe that will happen to us, too. Maybe we’ll be like, you know, shaming each other, playing the zero-sum political game, until like we get to the point where we realize from personal experience, you know, decades later, that it was a terrible way to govern a country, it was a terrible way to relate to our fellow humans, and that there was just such waste. You know, human, human waste or otherwise, that we’ll just learn. You know, we’ll learn even though we have the capacity to do this particular thing, we’re not going to do. Similar thing with World War I, World War II.
Francis: That’s such a great thought. Before we end, I would like you, if you can, to maybe talk a little bit about what you’re working on now. You’re researching a book, right?
M.E. So I, I’ve started writing a second book, probably in the last year or so. The reason why I started thinking about it is, you know, I’ve learned a lot since the last book was published, I guess 2013, so almost six years ago, in May. Since then, I’ve gone to a therapist, I’ve learned some other things, and so I kind of thought, you know, I have…I have some more things to share. And so I wanted to share it with people, and there was this…young man, he’s in his mid-20s in Australia, and he wanted to join the Australian version of like, essentially the Seals, their Navy special forces. But he wasn’t allowed into the military, because during his college era, somehow he had gotten the diagnosis. He was seeing a therapist. The therapist never told him what the diagnosis was, but it was in his medical records, and so when went to go to apply to join the Navy, they saw that and said, you know, you’re not getting in. And he was like, “M.E., now what? Now that I have this diagnosis, I just found about it last month, and it’s ruined my dreams of what I wanted to do as a career”…You know, he was like a semi-professional swimmer, so it was definitely what he wanted to do. And I thought, this is the perfect question that I feel like I can kind of help answer. And I think I had a little bit of hubris, too, when I started, I’ll go down and meet him, and I’ll try to meet some other, kind of, sociopathic minded people, and try to kind of start sharing my ideas about things. And I..I still do think I have like, some insight that does help them, and I do try to help them. I’ve been, now, I don’t know, like ten different countries or something, I’ve been traveling the world this past year, meeting these people and other people who aren’t necessarily sociopathic minded but are interested, or have similar experiences, you know, are interested in neuro-diversity, or have friends, relatives, who are sociopathic minded. And I’ve since learned a lot, and I guess I’ve learned even more than, you know, thinking I have the right answers. And I guess talking to you today, this may explain a little bit of the background of why I think it’s so important to hold your beliefs lightly, gently, and keep and open mind, is that everybody has such different experiences. You know, the British sociopaths are different than the French ones, are different than the Russian ones, are different than the Australian ones…and it’s not even just their nationality, obviously, that’s different. It’s just everybody is so different, and things manifest themselves in such different ways for different people, and the answer that’s right for me is not necessarily going to be the answer, or the solution, for somebody else. So I guess even within the sociopathic community, I’ve learned to understand and respect that a little bit better, and understand that everybody essentially has to just make their own way, and that there are certain things that are more true than others, or will tend to be true is more situations than others, but I think when you take anything to an extreme, you’re gonna end up in a bad place. That’s true of virtues, they can become vices, and I think that’s even true of “truth,” that you can distort truth by taking it to an extreme. So, I guess I just think more in terms of everybody is different, there’s such a huge diversity of people, even amongst the sociopathic community, things that work for us, things that seem right for us, maybe aren’t going to be necessarily so for other people, and to just kind of be OK with that.
Chris: And with that said, what makes you optimistic about the future? I mean, I don’t think you’d be out there writing books and doing the activism you are if you’re optimistic at least at some level.
M.E. Mmh. That’s so true. It is so true, I really am optimistic about the future. I think one thing that makes me optimistic is that I, myself, have changed, you know. I don’t think I’ve ever been really kind of rigid about beliefs, even though I write the book, you know, the first book is just kind of a snapshot of what life was like, and a lot of it was, by the time I even was writing it, it wasn’t stuff that I was necessarily, you know, still engaging it. I guess (laughs) some of the more childish things, you know, or some of the more immature things, by the time I wrote it, they were mostly in my past. And things have changed similarly, like with therapy, other things that I’ve been doing, you know, relationships that I’ve had with other people—I just see things as being, like, this journey of change. I have seen change in my own life, I’ve gotten to happier places in my own life, and so I…just, I guess I believe in the power of change? Self-willed change, and I think I believe in the, I guess, the divinity of the human condition. You know, I believe in the, the potential that humans have to do really great, good things, and to have very deep, meaningful, lives, live lives of meaning, and to understand that they have quite a bit of power. Everybody has power. Sociopaths are more aware and thinking about power every day, but everybody has power to understand, you have the power to do of great good, and great evil. Which is why, you know, even if you’re just kind of shooting off a tweet, or shooting off a Facebook post, to kind of be more considerate and aware of the sorts of effects that that may have on people, to be more considerate and aware of the way your actions affect others, and this kind of getting to this concept of treating everybody as being equally, I guess, sacred. You know, and not interfering with their own ability to change and to…make their choices freely and uninhibited by…your own issues and hangups and your own feelings about what they’re getting up to.
Chris: Well, thank you, M.E. Thomas, for joining us on Making Better.
M.E. Thanks so much, Chris.
Francis: Yeah, Thank you very much.
M.E. Thank you, Francis.
Richard Matthew Stallman leads the Free Software Movement, which shows how the usual non-free software subjects users to the unjust power of its developers, plus their spying and manipulation, and campaigns to replace it with free (freedom-respecting) software.
Born in 1953, Stallman graduated Harvard in 1974 in physics. He worked at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab from 1971 to 1984, developing system software including the first extensible text editor Emacs (1976), plus the AI technique of dependency-directed backtracking, also nown as truth maintenance (1975).
In 1983 Stallman launched the Free Software Movement by announcing the project to develop the GNU operating system, planned to consist entirely of free software. Stallman began working on GNU on January 5, 1984, resigning from MIT employment in order to do so. In October 1985 he established the Free Software Foundation, of which he is president as a full-time volunteer.
Stallman invented the concept of copyleft, “Change it and redistribute it but don’t strip off this freedom,” and wrote (with lawyers) the GNU General Public License, which implements copyleft. This inspired Creative Commons.
Stallman personally developed a number of widely used software components of the GNU system: the GNU Compiler Collection, the GNU symbolic debugger (gdb), GNU Emacs, and various others.
The GNU/Linux system, which is a variant of GNU that also contains the kernel Linux developed by Linus Torvalds, is used in tens or hundreds of millions of computers. Alas, people often call the system “Linux”, giving the GNU Project none of the credit.
Their versions of GNU/Linux often disregard the ideas of freedom which make free software important, and even include nonfree software in those systems.
Nowadays, Stallman focuses on political advocacy for free software and its ethical ideas. He spends most of the year travelling to speak on topics such as “Free Software And Your Freedom” and “Copyright vs Community in the Age of the Computer Networks”. Another topic is “A Free Digital Society”, which treats several different threats to the freedom of computer users today.
In 1999, Stallman called for development of a free on-line encyclopedia through inviting the public to contribute articles. This idea helped inspire Wikipedia.
Stallman is officially a Visiting Scientist at MIT.
Free Software, Free Society is Stallman’s book of essays. His semiautobiography, Free as in Freedom, provides further biographical information.
He has received the following awards:
• 1986: Honorary life time membership in the Chalmers Computer Society
• 1990: MacArthur Foundation Fellowship
• 1990: The Association for Computing Machinery’s Grace Murray Hopper Award “For pioneering work in the development of the extensible editor EMACS (Editing Macros).”
• 1996: Doctorate honoris causa from Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology
• 1998: Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer award
• 1999: Yuri Rubinsky Memorial Award
• 2001: The Takeda Techno-Entrepreneurship Award for Social/Economic Well-Being
• 2001: Doctorate honoris causa from the University of Glasgow
• 2002: United States National Academy of Engineering membership
• 2003: Doctorate honoris causa from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel
• 2003: Honorary professorship from the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería del Perú
• 2004: Doctorate honoris causa from the Universidad Nacional de Salta, in Argentina
• 2004: Honorary professorship from the Universidad Tecnológica del Perú
• 2005: Fondazione Pistoletto prize
• 2007: Honorary professorship from the Universidad Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, in Peru
• 2007: First Premio Internacional Extremadura al Conocimiento Libre
• 2007: Doctorate honoris causa from the Universidad de Los Angeles de Chimbote, in Peru
• 2007: Doctorate honoris causa from the University of Pavia
• 2008: Doctorate honoris causa from the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo, in Peru
• 2009: Doctor of Science honoris causa from Lakehead University in Canada
• 2011: Doctorate honoris causa from the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, in Argentina
• 2012: Honorary professorship from the Universidad César Vallejo de Trujillo, in Peru
• 2012: Doctorate honoris causa from the Universidad Latinoamericana Cima de Tacna, in Peru
• 2012: Doctorate honoris causa from the Universidad José Faustino Sanchez Carrión, in Peru
• 2013: Inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame
• 2014: Doctorate honoris causa from Concordia University in Canada
• 2015: Doctorate honoris causa from Universidad las Américas in Peru.
• 2016: The Association for Computing Machinery’s Software and Systems Award for development of GCC, the GNU Compiler Collection. Click here to read a full biography of Richard Stallman. Click here to read a full transcript of this episode.
Chris: Richard Stallman, welcome to Making Better!
Richard: Thanks for asking me on.
Chris: You’re most well-known for being the father of the free software movement, and I don’t believe most of our listeners know anything about free software. So can you start, maybe even by the most fundamental of definitions, by telling us the difference between “free” as in freedom and “free” as in gratis…
Richard: Well, I don’t use the word “free” to refer to price, I avoid that for the sake of clarity. Free software means software that respects the freedom and community of the program’s users. So it’s a matter of freedom, we’re not talking about price at all. In fact, when I want to say that something is available for zero price, I call it “gratis,” because that’s an unambiguous, clear word. And every time I say “free,” it refers to freedom, never to price. But why is it important for software to respect your freedom and your community? Well, with any program there are two possibilities: either the users control the program, or the program controls the users. You’ve probably heard about the issues that happen when companies control seeds, or companies control medicines, or companies control how you can watch TV or connect to the internet. These companies use their power to mistreat people. Well, it’s just the same with software companies. Nowadays, if you’re running in your computer a program that is not free software, whatever company owns that program has power over you, because it controls the program that tells your computer what to do. And the company’s programmers, they know that, and they are probably designing that program to give the company an advantage over you, to put you at a disadvantage. The companies do this by putting in malicious functionalities, like they make the program spy on its users, or they design it to refuse to do the things that the users will want, ‘cause it’s to their advantage not to let users do what they want. They may have it depend on a server, which might get switched off; they could make it censor users, it can have a backdoor which can be used to do whatever they want to do to users whenever they want to do it. The Amazon e-book reader—we call it the Amazon Swindle—has a backdoor to erase books. And Amazon used this backdoor to send a command to erase thousands of copies of a particularly book one day, and can you guess what book it was? It was 1984 by George Orwell. I’m not making this up! If I were writing fiction, that would seem just too unbelievable, I wouldn’t dare pick that example. But that’s what really happened!
Chris: 1984 meets Fahrenheit 451.
Richard: Well, in 1984 the government burned books, too, you know.
Chris: Yes. So you laid out the four fundamental freedoms of software freedom—could you go into, briefly, should the four freedoms?
Richard: Sure, but I want to explain how they figure in. I say that in order for the program to respect users’ freedom, the users have to have control over it. They need to have control separately but also collectively. Now there are four particular freedoms that the users need in order to have control, so these four freedoms—we call them the four essential freedoms—they actually make a practical definition of free software. So, freedom zero is the freedom to run the program any way you wish for any purpose. Freedom one is the freedom to study the program’s source code, those are the plans that a programmer can understand and then change it so that it does things the way you wish. In other words, so that it works differently, any way you like. And these two give each user separately control over the program, but in order to exercise freedom one, you need to be a programmer. Most users are not programmers, but they still deserve control over their computing, which requires control over the programs they run. How does a non-programmer get to have control? Through collective control, which is the freedoms for a group of users to work together to exercise control over what that program does. So maybe you and five other users decide to make certain changes, and then some of you, who know how to program, write those changes, and then you all use the result, including some of you who don’t know how to program. So this is the way non-programmers can participate in getting programs changed the way they wish. Collective control requires two additional essential freedoms, which adds up to the four essential freedoms. So, freedom number two is to make exact copies and redistribute them to others, either give them or sell them to others, when you wish. And freedom three is to make copies of your modified versions and give or sell them to others when you wish. So with this, the group’s members can cooperate. If one member of the group makes a modified version, then with freedom three, person can copies of that and distribute them to others in the group…then they, with freedom two, can make exact copies of that, and distribute them to others in the group, and this way everyone in the group can get a copy of this new, modified version. So this is why those four freedoms are all essential, so that users have individual, separate control and collective control. Collective control requires two additional essential freedoms, which adds up to the four essential freedoms.
Chris: The comment I was about to make was about the second freedom, I was going to say that the Free Software Foundation website has a list of other volunteer opportunities that people can do to help free software, who are not programmers.
Richard: That’s right, there’s a lot of work that this movement needs which is not programming, some of it which is not particularly technical. It’s like any other political movement, we need speakers, we need people to organize local activist groups and look for opportunities to try to move things to freedom. So you don’t need to be a programmer. Take a look at GNU.org/help and you’ll see our list of many different kinds of work we need.
Francis: If the free software movement succeeds, how will that improve the average person’s life?
Richard: Well, it means that you won’t be mistreated by the software in your computer. You know, right now many programs are spying on people. We recently found that programs sent sensitive personal information to Facebook because the developers of those programs, their mobile apps, use the Facebook library that sends data to Facebook. But you’ve got to expect programs to be spying on you if they’re non-free, that’s why I don’t use any of them. I just reject them all. If there’s something that would be convenient but it means using a non-free program, I won’t do it. I defend my freedom. I won’t sacrifice my freedom for convenience, that’s the first step in having any freedom is not trading it for convenience. But the thing is, if you make that trade, eventually you’ll be at such a big disadvantage vis-a-vis companies, that you’ll probably end up being lured into throwing your money away and being mistreated constantly by companies that profile you, your wallet will be emptied, your democracy will be emptied, your elections will be manipulated, and if the government knows everything about everyone, and of course whatever the companies collect in the US the US government gets to take from them, then heroic whistleblowers like Edward Snowden will be impossible because they’d be caught right away. If the government knows who goes where, what each one does and who talks with whom, there is no privacy left and you can see what that looks like in China, and that’s where the United States is heading to. It’s time now to organize and fight and say, “stop talking about regulating the use of our data, and stop collecting it at all.”
Francis: We live in a generation of kids right now who haven’t been brought up to appreciate privacy as a right, even.
Richard: That’s true, it’s very threatening. But there’s no use giving up. You see, I don’t need to be an optimist to keep fighting. I know that it’s better to fight than to surrender. If you surrender you’re immediately defeated. What good is that?
Francis: I agree completely. So what do you do about all this information that’s been garnered about everyone that’s on Facebook and all these other sites that have been tracking people—is that information just out there ready to be exploited?
Richard: Well, it is. Theoretically we could pass laws requiring them to delete it, but even if we don’t delete the old information, if we stop the collection of more information, that will gradually solve the problem of the old information. It will become less applicable and less complete, and eventually it won’t be enough to be a basis for tyranny by itself.
Chris: I’ve heard you talking, and you use a phrase that I really like, that if you use Facebook you’re not actually a “user,” you’re a “used”
Richard: Correct. Facebook uses people, people don’t use Facebook. Facebook uses people to collect data about them and about other people. If you talk with people through Facebook, then those people are pressured by you to be used by Facebook, to give data to Facebook. And when they do so, they’re also pressuring others. So they may be pressuring you to communicate through Facebook, while you’re pressuring them to communicate by Facebook. People are pressuring each other. And my conclusion from that is, it’s really our duty to refuse to be used by Facebook. But it’s important to note that Facebook collects data about people in a number of other ways, even if they don’t have Facebook accounts. For instance, there is a period tracking app for women, which was sending data to Facebook, and these women didn’t necessarily have to have Facebook accounts. It was still getting data about them, so of course it can find out when they’re pregnant, and not only that. Lots of programs have been sending data to Facebook in that way. And websites also send data to Facebook. If you look at a website and you see a “like” button, the Facebook server knows that your machine visited that page.
Chris: And there are some social media outlets that are ethical…I’m thinking of Gnu Social, and Megadon perhaps?
Richard: You mean Mastadon?
Rchard: Yeah. Mastadon is actually a modified version of Gnu Social. Yes, they’re ethical in two ways. One is that the client software you need is all free software, and the other is that the networks are run to some extent by the community, and therefore, they’re not constantly being designed to get people to give more data. Of course you still have to think about what you’re going to say to people. What you say in any social network, no matter how ethically run it might be, is going to be visible to a lot of people. So, you should think twice before saying things. You know, don’t post photos of other people, because publishing a photo with other people in it is helping to track them. You should ask them whether they really want to be tracked. Don’t post photos of minors, because those photos will be part of their permanently available data, available to whoever, whoever it might be depending on how you posted it. But the point is, that’s someone who hasn’t had a chance to think about whether that’s a good idea, and could conceivably be used to hurt that person, or even you.
Chris: So it brings us to a question of consent.
Richard: Well, a baby can’t consent to anything. So, people don’t realize how dangerous massive surveillance is. But if you want to understand that, read about China’s social credit system, which is designed to keep track of people’s behavior in many dimensions, and then punish or reward people, depending on how much the state likes what people are doing.
Francis: What do you think, say, 50 years from now, would be the ultimate landscape for how software is offered, the nature of software? Say, like 50 years from now.
Richard: I can’t tell you. Nobody can predict the future 50 years from now, it’s fatuous to try. Human as in technology may not exist. Technology might exist and no humans, or humans exist but no technology. Robots powerful enough might consider humans to be a dispensable toy, or an inconvenience. On the other hand, global heating disaster could destroy globalized manufacturing and leave humans without the ability to make high tech goods, and some would still survive, nowhere near as many as today.
Chris: What do you consider are the most successful pieces of free software out there today? I mean, in my mind, the internet wouldn’t work without free software, so…
Richard: I don’t know if that’s true. I can’t say that I’m sure that the internet would not work without free software, free software has, for much of the internet’s existence, played an important role in its use. But there were other programs to do those things, and so there could still have been an internet without them, it just wouldn’t have respected our freedom at all. But the most important free software is the Gnu/ Linux operating system, that’s what makes it possible to run a PC with only free software. And then Android has a relationship with free software. It’s not a simple relationship; a large piece of Android is released by Google as free software. It’s not everything you need to actually run a device, so you’ve to either pick your device carefully and put in some free replacements, or run non-free programs along with it. And then many of the original apps of Android were non-free, and over the years some apps that were free have been replaced with non-free programs by Google. And the next thing is, if you get an Android device, it’s not certain that the programs distributed in that device are free—they could be non-free modified versions of the free programs, they could be other programs that are non-free. It’s something that can only be checked on a case-by-case basis. There is a free variant of Android, it’s called Replicant, it works on certain models and it’s entirely free software.
Chris: Does Replicant also cut down on the surveillance as well?
Richard: Well, to some extent. There are various technical methods to do surveillance. Many non-free programs spy on the user and send personal data to somebody. Well, if you don’t run those programs, if you run only free software, you’re pretty much safe from that. It’s unusual for free programs to spy on the user, because the users can fix that. That means that the users, if they care enough, can make sure that the program doesn’t spy on them, and this is a powerful deterrent against anyone’s putting in surveillance functionalities into free software. It’s not guaranteed, you may have to check which version you’re going to use to avoid surveillance. But at least it’s possible to make the modified version which doesn’t spy. In any case, though, that’s not the only form of surveillance. For instance, there’s an increasing danger from cameras on the street that recognize license plates and recognize faces. Now, that doesn’t work through our computers, we can’t block that by changing the software in our computers. We have to organize and get laws to say that face recognition systems may not recognize any face except somebody put in the list by a court order.
Francis: I’m imagining that if this face recognition, the computer could look at you, your laptop could look at you, figure out who you are and then market…
Richard: No, no no, no. Your laptop knows who you are. If it’s running non-free software, it’s very likely spying on you also, but if it’s running free software and you use a system distro that’s developed by people who care about protecting privacy, it probably isn’t spying on you. No, I’m talking about these cameras that are placed in the street, they’re not on your laptop. They watch everybody who passes by. And Amazon is now recruiting people to put video systems, you know, at their doors to watch everybody who comes up and the video, I believe, just gets stored by Amazon, and so the FBI, I believe, could collect it all with a National Security Letter. But in addition, there are programs to get people to sign up to send some of this information to cops. I know in Detroit, there’s a program where the cops tell businesses, if you want us to show up quickly for a 9-11 call you better have a camera that we can watch through all the time. Well, cameras that they can watch through all the time should be flat out illegal!—unless a court says put a camera right there for the next five months. These strong measures are what it will take to give us actual protection from total government tracking of what we do. And anything less won’t do the job.
Francis: I think a big hit on freedom was the Patriot Act and how that undid a lot of these freedoms.
Richard: I like to call it the “Pat-riot Act,” ‘cause in a country based on an idea of freedom, there is nothing less patriotic than that law. The idea of the US is that the government shouldn’t have total control over what people do, it shouldn’t know every, where everyone goes. It shouldn’t know everyone you talk with.
Francis: Well, how do we get back to that sort of awareness in people?
Richard: …have to change laws. I don’t have a magic recipe for how to win this campaign, but I can point out what we need. Let’s think of the Green New Deal. For many years, most of us—except denialists—have acknowledged that global heating is very dangerous and that it needs to be stopped. But you’ve seen, over and over, inadequate proposals, proposals that wouldn’t do the job. And now finally you see Extinction Rebellion and the students climate strike and the Green New Deal, where people are demanding that solutions be considered that would really solve the problem, that are not obviously insufficient. Well, I’m saying the same kind of thing about how to avoid having a surveillance state that represses dissent. We have to put an end to the collection of so much data that it could repress us.
Francis: Are any bills in Congress along these lines?
Richard: Not that I know of. But in Massachusetts, a bill has been submitted to stop the state from doing face recognition. It’s presented as a moratorium until proper regulations can be adopted. But in the meantime, it says none at all. There are very limited exceptions, which I believe depend on a court order. So that’s the kind of solution that’s needed, except it has to apply to private companies as well.
Francis: Maybe we need a Free New Deal, like getting back the freedoms we gave up because of the 9-11 hysteria back in the Patriot Act days. I think a lot of what was promoted at that time were supposed to be temporary, like emergency measures, too, not like a permanent …
Richard: Exactly. That’s what typically happens. That law was initially temporary, the Pat-riot Act, and it got renewed a few times, and I think ultimately made permanent, if my memory serves. But it shouldn’t have been passed at all. It was obvious at the time that this was a worse attack than the September 11th attacks themselves. In fact, on that day I started to write an article telling people what the next target would be, our freedom would be the next target. In the article I started to write, I urged Americans that, in their frustration about being unable to fight back against the bombers, that they must not start destroying their own country’s freedom instead.
Francis: And Obama was such a disappointment. I mean, the way Obama treated whistleblowers, instead of maybe seeing Snowden as a hero with what he did…I mean, that to me was very telling about who Obama really was.
Richard: Well, I could tell that before the election. His slogans were “Hope” and “Change”—could you get vaguer than that? It was clear that he wasn’t the kind of person who would really try to solve the country’s big problems. I wasn’t knowledgable enough to foresee the specifics of his disappointing actions, his inability to push hard for anything, and his subservience to the banksters when the central problem of the United States is plutocracy. You can look at so many different areas, whether it’s surveillance, or pollution, or impoverishment of most people, or imprisonment, or the failure to curb global heating, and what you see is, plutocracy’s involved. I couldn’t see that much detail about him, but I did see that he was not proposing firm and major moves to address these problems.
Chris: I got excited about President Obama when he was still a candidate, because he was the first major Presidential candidate I’d ever heard who included disability in his speeches, and then he turned out to be an absolute disaster for people with disabilities. His Justice Department and his Federal Communications Commission were just an absolute failure for us. It was just a phenomenal disappointment.
Richard: Yeah. Well, it’s one more disappointment on many others from Obama.
Francis: Actually prosecute all the people that were doing the, uh, stuff the Bush team were doing that was obviously illegal, and the bankers, the banksters, and then his basic idea was, “we can’t look back, we have to look forward.” I was thinking, you know, if any lawyer tried that in a court, like “Judge, yeah he killed 50 people, but we can’t look back, we have to look forward”—what kind of justification is that anyway? But somehow he pulled it off.
Richard: Yeah, they stole a million Americans’ houses with fraudulent foreclosure, let’s not look back at that…but it was Obama and it was, Holder, I think was his name, the Treasury Secretary, who let the banksters off the hook, protected them, and when states were going to prosecute them for this fraud, it was Obama and Holder that pressured them to let it drop.
Chris: But if you compare what our Attorney General did in the banking crisis to Iceland, where 35 bankers in Iceland all went to jail—little Iceland actually prosecutes criminals while big United States gives criminals handouts.
Richard: Yeah. Well, part of that is because the companies are so big that it’s hard to fight them. Well, I have a proposal for how to make all these companies get smaller. The proposal is, a tax. You could think of it as a progressive sales tax. The bigger the total company is, worldwide, the higher the tax rate. This way, it pressures companies to split themselves up into independent businesses, because then each one will pay less tax.
Francis: Whoa. [claps] I love that idea! It’s so simple, and it has to work.
Richard: Well, it has to work if it’s tuned right. You know, there are economic questions in there, I can’t be sure it would actually work, but I’m sure it’s worth studying to see if you can tune it so you’ll get good results. It’s much better, though, than existing almost-nugatory US antitrust law, which requires suing the company and proving it did something in a very small range of prohibited kinds of actions, and then it can be split up…splitting it up in a way chosen by the government, which is not, again, limited by certain criteria, what…that’s not the way to do it. This tax would pressure companies to find the way to split themselves up, find an efficient way, but that would still give you n smaller companies instead of one giant company.
Francis: Well, you know, part of how we got here was this kind of scam that I think Reagan really started, where the free market became sort of a religion, and it was the answer to everything is just free market, free market, no regulations, and that sort of thing.
Richard: Right. It’s the cult of the invisible hand.
Francis: Yeah. And even with regards to free software, how do you think the free market system has backfired in terms of the common interest people have?
Richard: I wouldn’t say that. You know, free software can exist in a free market, in fact it does. Of course every market has regulations. Some markets have arbitrary regulations that limit participation to certain entities. That’s usually what’s meant by not a free market. But there are always regulations on any market. If you tried not to have them, everybody might start cheating unless they know each other enough that they won’t. And markets are unstable in many ways that economists know about but in neoclassical economics they tend to close their eyes to this fact. The reason that we have anti-trust laws, 100 or so years ago, Americans realized that the market was unstable against mergers and trusts that would conspire to fix prices. So, laws were needed and were adopted to stop that. Well, when the market hits an instability, if you don’t want to let society fall into that instability, you need laws to stop it. You need regulations of the market. So, I wouldn’t say that free software is in any way contradictory to the free market. But there are certain practices that are harmful that shouldn’t be done. Our society, our legal system and the ambient philosophy promotes the practice of non-free software which is basically subjugating people through their computers. If you want software to treat you ethically, the way to get that in practice is, insist on free software and that way the user community of each program can make sure it isn’t nasty.
Francis: Can you give an example of what that would look like to people who aren’t into programming and that sort of thing?
Richard: Well, suppose that there’s a certain program that is inconvenient to use “cause the designers made a certain choice about how you would tell it what to do, what it’s interface would look like. And suppose that it doesn’t cater to people with vision problems. People with vision problems can work together to add a screen reader into that program, or make it talk properly to a screen reader. You don’t have to wait and try to convince the program’s principal developers that it’s worth paying attention to this. You can just ignore them, you can fix it yourself. You personally could fix it yourself if you want to, and this kind of thing’s happened, you know. Do you know Krishna Kahnt (*)?
Chris: I do.
Richard: Yeah. Well, Krisha Kahnt is a great example. He came to one of my talks, I suppose it was in Mumbai, and he said “I’m a blind user of Gnu/Linux and I find that the screen reader is not working very well. What should I do?” And I said, “work on improving it,” and he did. And he made important contributions to the free software screenreader that we have.
Chris: They were tremendously important additions, and he works a lot on the project now.
Richard: Yeah. Oh, that’s good news, ‘cause he’s so effective. The point is, if you said that about Windows, it would be useless, it would just be pissing and moaning. It’s unpleasant that the screenreader in Windows is inconvenient in these ways, what can I do? The answer is, nothing. “Cause Microsoft controls it, and it controls you. But when the program you’re complaining about is free software, then you can improve it yourself, or you, being a group of blind users who don’t know how to program but you’ve got money to contribute, you could pool your money to hire somebody to make whatever improvements you ask for.
Chris: There is actually a group out of Australia called NV Access, who make a screenreader called NVDA for Windows that’s GPL.
Richard: Yeah, I know. It’s sad that it’s for Windows. I wish they would work on making it run on Gnu. So this freedom for the users is what distinguishes free software. So it means that we can fix things that are broken, it means we can add improvements, but in addition, it means that we can fix and also deter anything malicious. When a company controls the program and controls what it does, that company faces temptation, the situation gives that company power over the users, which adds up to temptation. And you can’t expect companies nowadays to resist temptation to exploit people. Exploiting people is what most of them think they’re there for. So they’re going to put in malicious functionalities: like stopping you from doing certain things. Like spying on you. Like the backdoor that allowed Amazon to erase copies of 1984 and at other times to erase other books, and then there’s the censorship control that Apple has, which allows it to prevent people from installing apps unless Apple approves of them. And Apple was exercising this censorship power arbitrarily until 2017, at which point China told Apple, “from now on you’re going to censor for us”—and Apple said, “yes sir.”
Francis: Was jailbreaking iPhones kind of an attempt at some sort of…?
Richard: Yes, the purpose of “jailbreaking” them was to be able to install programs Apple didn’t approve of. But I gather that it’s pretty hard to jailbreak them now, and it’s not done very much. So basically Apple won that battle. We can’t assume that we will always defeat malicious technology because we’re so clever. We have to fight against it on the ethical grounds, politically. We have to say, don’t permit computers to censor the installation of applications or other software. Why should we allow such products to be sold?
Francis: I agree 100%. I think most people would agree with that.
Richard: Well, why should we allow programs to spy on people? Why should we allow programs to be designed with DRMs so that they restrict what users can do with the data they have? Why should we allow programs to have backdoors? People have accepted, though, people other than me, and I hope you, have basically granted legitimacy to the software developers having power over users. There are many people that complain when they see companies use this power in ways that cause pain, but they mostly don’t say that the companies shouldn’t have power over people in the first place. That’s what the free software movement says.
Chris: When Tim Cook came out with his criticism of Facebook, and came very closer to your “user vs. used” statement, all I could think was, you know, Richard Stallman’s been saying this for ten years. Tim Cook is certainly smart enough to have known it ten years earlier, why wasn’t he saying it then?
Richard: Well, first of all, “smart enough to” is not the operative question when it comes to taking a political position. You need more than just reasoning ability to reach political conclusions, because these conclusions are based on events in the world. And if you don’t see the harm, then you won’t reach the conclusion. So that’s not where my criticism of Tim Cook would be. My criticism is that he presides over malicious software, too. Apple is, I think, the nastiest company in regard to malicious software. Everything about Apple machines is designed to be malicious. In fact, I read that as of September or so, it became impossible to install Gnu/Linux in a Mac, that the Macs that came out after that were configured in such a way that they wouldn’t permit it. It would easy…
Chris: I have Ubuntu installed in a virtual machine on a my Macintosh and use it, so…
Richard: Sorry, that’s not the same thing. You’re still running Apple’s non-free software, which I wouldn’t tolerate in a computer of mine. And if Apple has set it up so that you can only run free software by…run a free system in a virtual machine, and can’t make that the native system of the machine, that’s oppression. That’s one of the things that I’d propose should be illegal.
Chris: Apple does ship some free software on Macintosh, I mean Emacs is there…
Richard: Some free software doesn’t matter. The question is, can you live in the free world, can you have freedom? It’s like saying, well, gee, there’s no chain on my left hand, there’s only a chain on each of my feet and on my right hand and on my neck, but on my left hand there’s no chain! Isn’t that great! It’s a small step towards where things should be. You see my point? The goal of the free software movement is not that we have a few programs that are free. No, it’s to do our computing in freedom, which means no non-free software. That was the goal from the very beginning. That’s the goal that I announced in 1983, to develop a sufficient body of free software that we could get along without any software that is not free.
Chris: I’m going to ask you now, an entertaining Richard Stallman story, just because I’ve heard it told to me in about 30 different versions. You were coming home from your birthday party and were told that Symbolics was no longer sharing its software with MIT. Now the version of the story I heard most often is that…
Richard: Let me tell you what actually happened. It’s better than recounting a possibly incorrect story. First of all, I don’t know whether I had a birthday party that day. Most years I have not had one. But it was on my birthday that I was informed that Symbolics had effectively issued an ultimatum to everybody at the AI Lab. But perhaps I should explain the background for this, because most people listening don’t know what Symbolics was or what the dispute was about. Well, a group of us at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab had developed the LISP machine. LISP is a very elegant programming language that was often used for Artificial Intelligence, as well as for some other things. So this was a computer designed to run LISP programs faster and do so with full runtime error checking. If anything turned out to be the wrong data type and you tried to operate on it, the machine would show you that there was an error and where, and you could do whatever was useful to do. It wouldn’t go blindly on, treating the data as if it were the other type and do total nonsense. So the LISP machine was a big advance, and we wanted to give other people—other labs, not individuals, really, at the time—the chance to have that. So people started to create a company to manufacture LISP machines. By the way, LISP is short for LISt Processing. Anyway, there was a disagreement, and the group split and two different companies were started by different parts of the group. The person who had started the project, Greenblatt, wanted to make a hacker companies—we all called ourselves hacking, and “hacking” just meant playful cleverness, such as developing the LISP machine. That was hacking. We had a lot of fun being playfully clever, developing that software. So his idea was that it would not hire away everybody from the AI Lab, and thus not destroy our community, and in other ways be less ruthless than typical companies funded by venture capital. The other people decided to do it the usual way, with venture capital, and make something that would be ruthless. MIT set up an agreement between the two companies, for them to use the LISP machine software system, which entailed, by the way, making that system that I had helped develop parts of, into non-free software. And that, that hurt my conscience. What could I do? And things just went along, but basically the agreement was both of those companies could use and distribute MIT’s LISP machine operating system, and they both had to give their changes back to MIT. But the MIT lawyers forgot to include a clause saying that MIT could redistribute those changes. It sort of took for granted that that would be permitted. Symbolics was one of the companies, it was the one with the venture capital, the one that was going to be ruthless, and it was. And on my birthday, it said that from then on, it would provide its version of the system to MIT for people at MIT to use, but MIT would not be allowed to put those changes and improvements into the MIT LISP machine operating system. Symbolics’ idea was that since it had hired most of the programmers away from the AI Lab, and had destroyed our community, and the other company, Greenblatt’s company, since it didn’t have all that money, didn’t have programmers working for it at the time, Symbolics thought that it would destroy Greenblatt’s company this way. It thought that everyone at MIT would use the Symbolics version of the system because it would have improvements, and that the MIT version would languish, it would not be maintained, and therefore LISP Machine Incorporated, Greenblatt’s company, would fail. And I interpreted this as an ultimatum that required everybody at MIT to choose a side between the two companies. I didn’t want to choose a side, I had been neutral. I had stayed working at MIT rather than go into either company, because I didn’t want to take a side in that conflict. Although before it wasn’t a…burning conflict, it was just a potential conflict. It was definitely contention between the two, and I just wanted to stay at MIT doing what I’d done before. But I couldn’t do that anymore, Symbolics had forced me to take a side. Therefore, I took the side against the attacker, Symbolics. That’s what you do when you’re neutral and you’re attacked by one side. So, I said that I would develop replacements for all of Symbolics’ improvements and put them into MIT’s version of the system, and thus keep it maintained, keep improving, and also enable LISP Machine Incorporated to have a chance to succeed, stopping Symbolics’ attempt to destroy it. Symbolics didn’t like this, but I did this for almost two years, and that was to punish Symbolics for imposing an ultimatum that it thought would compel me and everyone else at MIT to be a supporter of Symbolics. I don’t like it when anyone tries to force me to support in an injustice against someone else.
Chris: So effectively in two years you did all the work of Symbolics’ team, that was heavily funded by venture capitalists?
Richard: Yes. I wrote equivalent different software to compete with all the people who had left the AI Lab that used to be part of the same group. I worked terribly hard. But it was my ability to succeed in doing that, that showed me that I could entertain the idea of developing a free operating system, which was an even bigger job.
Chris: And that’s what led to Gnu/Linux.
Richard: Well, Gnu is the operating system I developed in 1992, when Torvalds made Linux free software. It could be used as the kernel for the Gnu system, that filled the last gap in the Gnu system, which was almost complete at the time—complete in the sense of a minimal operating capability, a system you could use to do its own continued development. It didn’t have everything you’d want, but it was a system that could be run and developed. And that is the result of my decision, that I was going to develop this system no matter what it took, because it had to be developed, it was the only way that people would ever be able to use a computer in freedom. And that is, without any software that puts you under the power of somebody else.
Chris: And you’ve grown that community from basically yourself to tens if not hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are hacking on free software every day…
Richard: Yes. Although sad to say, most of them don’t support the free software movement. People in 1998 who disagreed with our philosophy decided to try to co-opt our work and substitute a different philosophy, a business-friendly philosophy, one that didn’t rock the boat. They called that “open source,” and the idea was they would not talk about freedom, they would never talk about it as a matter of right and wrong. They wouldn’t say that open source was their substitute for free, but it stood for a different idea, it wasn’t just a different name. It was a different name for a different meaning. Whereas we say it’s wrong if a program doesn’t respect your freedom, they would never say that it’s wrong if a program is closed source. That was exactly what they wanted to avoid even hinting at. Well, that led to a lot of companies, including even IBM, boosting the term “open source” and never raising the issue in terms of right and wrong. And that did lead to more development of programs that are free, but it led to our communities mostly forgetting about the issue of freedom, which is the reason this is so important. So, what that means is, our community is much wider now, but it doesn’t have the same deep roots.
Chris: How would you see to promote the philosophy moving forward?
Richard: Well, we can talk about it, which is what I’m doing now, and we can show that we treat this as a principle. So I won’t have a non-free program on my computer. I don’t say I use free software “whenever possible,” meaning whenever it’s not too hard. No, I say I will not use non-free software. I won’t have it on my computer at all, and if there’s something I can’t do with free software, well, then I’m not going to do it, I guess, until there is free software to do it.
Francis: What about having class action suits against companies to prevent the spying aspects…..?
Richard: I don’t know whether you have a chance of winning. In principle, if you’ve got a chance of winning, I’d say go to it. But I don’t think that there are very good laws against it. The most there is in some cases as far as I know is that, in some cases they are required to ask permission. Now that’s a very weak protection, because the computing industry, the software industry and digital dis-service industry, has become adept at the manufacture of consent. They can get you to say “yes” with a combination of several techniques. One is, writing carefully so that it’s not clear to you just what you’re saying “yes” to, and another is putting the consent in something very long, that would take you hours to understand, and you couldn’t understand because it’s written in a way that is above your reading level, and that you’re not even going to look at anyway.
Chris: And also typically you’ll find the “agree” button is before the text, so most users out there just hit the “agree” button so they can use the software.
Richard: I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “before”—I don’t know if it’s legally valid, legally binding if you can’t see the agreement before you agree to it…
Chris: They just put the button at the top, with the text below it, so…
Richard: They know they can manipulate people because people have not been…their consciousness has not be raised about how they’re going to be mistreated. But then the final pressure is, you want to use this dis-service, and you feel it’s very important to you, so even if you saw that they were going to do nasty things to you, you think that your choice is either to accept it or not. And in the short term, if you don’t value freedom the way I do, you might accept it. “Cause in the short term, your choice is either use it or don’t. But in the long term, society’s choice is either to have one that respects our freedom and privacy and community, or have one that trashes our freedom and privacy and community. Because if we tolerate the unjust one, it will fill the niche and it will be harder for us to replace it with the just one. So my feeling is, it’s my responsibility as a citizen to reject the unjust one.
Francis: Seems to me that, if it were other technologies that came before computing, the same type of behavior would have had people up in arms. Like if the phone company was listening to your phone calls and then sending that information to ..markers and stuff, I mean people…
Richard: Well, but that’s happening now.
Francis: It’s happening on phones?
Richard: Well, I know the phone companies are recording who you talk to, and some of them are telling the US government, one thing we learned in 2013, I think we learned this from Snowden, is that AT&T had been telling the US government—I think specifically the FBI—about every long-distance phone call it had made since 1988 or so.
Chris: And the government can collect all these phone numbers and know everybody who’s talked to everybody…
Richard: Exactly. And that’s exactly what we can’t allow the state to know about people other than court-designated suspects. That’s the system that we developed to protect people from being tracked in all their activities by the state.
Chris: We have Jim Fructerman coming on as a guest, and he’s built, at Benetech, a communications system that’s being used by more and more NGOs and nonprofits who are doing work in countries that…may have governments unfriendly to their work, that goes a step beyond TOR even, to make their communications private.
Richard: Does it support non-immediate messages, in other words something comparable to email?
Chris: I am not certain, I don’t know the details.
Richard: That would be important. You see, if it supports something comparable to email, something that people could have drop into their mailboxes, then I could use it. But if required that both people be online at the same time, it’s impossible for me. Totally impossible.
Chris: It’s pretty much designed for human rights organizations to communicate with each other.
Richard: It may be a very good thing, I don’t know enough about it. I’d be interested in seeing a summary of its features, maybe we could use it. Is it all free software? I’m hoping it is.
Chris: Yes, it is. Because of some mistakes they made early on, not everything Benetech does is free software, but they’re replacing everything they have with free software now.
Richard: I’m glad they’ve got on the right path.
Chris: They were doing some things in Windows. If Windows was free software, this wouldn’t have been required, but they had to use real—almost black-hat hacker techniques to get information out of some things in Windows.
Richard: Yes, that’s one of the problems you get when you’re trying to build on top of a non-free program, which is the developers tell you about how to do certain things, and they don’t tell you how to do other things. Non-free programs often have secret functionalities that other products from the same company can use, but your products can’t. Basically any chance they get to manipulate others to their own advantage, they don’t hesitate. Because there’s nothing to check their nastiness anymore. Windows has a universal back door. What this means is that Microsoft can forcibly change the software in a Windows machine in any way it likes. It can put any nasty thing into a Windows system.
Chris: And I’m sure there are many nasty things already there.
Richard: There are. We have a catalog of known malicious functionalities, hundreds of them. It’s in Gnu.org/malware. Malware means a program designed to run in a way that hurts other users.
Chris: You also have a list of all of the crimes Facebook committed, don’t you?
Richard: Well, I have a list of reasons to refuse to be used by Facebook, and that’s in Stallman. org/Facebook.html
Francis: How do they make all that data available? Like, how do they sell it, and who’s buying it?
Richard: It’s complicated and I don’t know all the info. I don’t actually care very much how they use it, the point is, those are details that don’t affect my judgment of anything.
Francis: I’m just wondering if perhaps it could be made illegal to use that kind of information.
Richard: Well, it could be. I think it’s probably just as easy to forbid the things they do to collect the information as it is to limit the harmful things they do with it. And one thing that we’re not likely to see laws to forbid them to do, is give the data to the FBI when the FBI asks for it. And that’s, of course, what the Pat-riot Act requires.
Chris: So if they’re not collecting the data at all, Frank, they can’t sell it, they can’t give it to the government, they can’t do anything. So Richard’s point is, pass laws that keep them from collecting it at all.
Francis: Well, I’m just being selfish, ‘cause I’m assuming there’s all this information about everything I’ve googled and everything I’ve bought and everyone I’ve talked to for the last bunch of years…
Richard: Well actually, if Google knows who you are, when you do a search, which it probably does more or less if you haven’t come through TOR using a browser designed to hide your identity…
Chris: I believe Google blocks TOR now…
Richard: Yes, it does. That’s my experience. Although…not actually it doesn’t block TOR, exactly. What happened last time I tried was, it sent me a capcha, but the capcha required running non-free software, and I wouldn’t run that. I don’t know what other nasty things that…the code of that capcha involves. We’re changing the subject…the point is, Google, if it knew who you were, kept track of what searches you did, and uses that to profile you and will give it to the FBI if ordered to.
Francis: I remember there was that time when everybody was worried about lists they were on, and how, like, if there’s some sort of other huge event that’s created like 9-11 that people would just be herded into stadiums and stuff, who are considered…potential threats to whatever they
Richard: If anything, we’re closer to that now. I wouldn’t be surprised if the supporters of the bullshitter do a thing like that. I used to call him “the Troll,” but that’s when …the main thing he was doing was saying outrageous things, in other words trolling. Even what he says is worse that just trolling, it’s making up total nonsense that’s different every day from what it was the previous day. I also refer to him as the Bully, the Cheater, the War-lover, the Saboteur-in Chief, whatever fits whatever act I’m talking about. The point is that they have such contempt for every actual meaning of human rights and the Constitution, that I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they put thousands of Americans into prison for political reasons.
Francis: During a crisis, they could easily pull that off.
Richard: Well, they have lots of cops that are right-wing. And so if they wanted to put leftists in prison, I’m sure they wouldn’t get much resistance from most cops. It’s not as if they would need to be careful about deciding who to imprison, people like that are not tremendously concerned about doing justice, even in terms of their own ideas of right and wrong.
Francis: I’m not sure if right and wrong really enters into their thought process. More like win or lose…
Richard: Well, in a way it does. They certainly do think that various groups of people are bad and they’re doing things that are wrong. The point is that checking carefully what each individual has or hasn’t done is not part of their thinking about it. They like saying “lock her up” and proving that she did something that is a crime, is not something that they think is even pertinent.
Francis: Well, we’re having to re-fight all these old battles. I think eventually where we’re headed now, we’re going to have to start arguing over whether democracy itself is valid.
Richard: Well, we know the answer to that. It’s the worst of all systems of government, except the others that have been tried from time to time.
Chris: So we’re bumping up against our hour—Richard, is there anything that you’d especially like to add?
Richard: For more information about free software and Gnu, look at gnu.org. If you’re interested in philosophical questions, look at gnu.org/ philosophy. If you’re interested in free software licenses and what they mean and which ones to use, look at gnu.org/licenses. If you’d like to see why schools have the moral obligation to teach exclusively free software, look at gnu.org/education. And if you want to look at why governments should move to free software in all their activities, look at gnu.org/government. And if you’re interested in why we should prohibit systems that collect personal data, make sure that they’re designed in a way such that they don’t collect data about who does what and who goes where and who talks with whom, look at gnu.org/philosophy/surveillancevsdemocracy.html–the title of the article is, How Much Surveillance Can Democracy Withstand? There’s also the Free Software Foundation, whose website is FSF.org. If you look at FSF.org/resources/hw you can find out about machines that can run with free software. And there’s other useful resources and campaigns in that site as well. And you can also donate or become an associate member of the Free Software Foundation. Donations are memberships are our main source of funds. There’s also gnu.org/help, which lists various kinds of volunteer work we’re looking for, and most of them do not involve programming. You don’t need to be a technical person to do them.
Chris: And that’s something that I constantly tell people I know who use Gnu software, that they can help out in one way or another. Whenever I talk to somebody who says “oh, Gnu—I use Gnu paint, or whatever Gnu program they use.
Richard: Thank you for doing that. And Happy Hacking!
Chris: Thank you so much for coming on Making Better, and we hope you’ll come back maybe in a year, give us an update.
Anne Devereux-Mills is a sought-after speaker, author and advocate for women, particularly on the subject of how to create a powerful cycle of personal growth, empowerment, and advancement. Anne’s mission is to share what she has learned through her own experience: recognize one’s own strengths and skills – and use them to help other women, creating an outward moving circle of positive change, and, in the process, empowering yourself.
Capping a 25-year career as one of the most influential women in the advertising industry, in 2012 Anne founded Parlay House, (@ParlayHouse on Twitter)c an expanding national salon-style gathering of 1500 women who meet to pull each other forward through a combination of shared experiences, meaningful content, and peer-to-peer connections. She has been a mentor for SHE-CAN, an organization supporting and grooming the next generation of female world leaders coming from post-genocide countries, and served as the director of Stanford University’s Healthy Body Image Programs. She was the Executive Director of The Return, an Emmy-nominated documentary about the experience of people returning to society post-incarceration. She and her husband were the lead sponsors of California’s Proposition 36, which restored fairness in sentencing to the State’s excessive Three Strikes Law.
As with all episodes of Making better, a transcript is available for this one as well. YOu can begin reading it below and continue reading by following the link in the embedded copy.
Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future.
Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.
Chris: Well, Francis, it’s Episode 3 of the Making Better Podcast!
Francis: Awesome! I’m very exciting, because I woke up this morning, I read the headlines, and once again…the Trump administration was at war with the environment, and I felt like, god I gotta do something! We all have to do better, we all have to do more. This aggression will not stand, man! So, I’m really happy that we’re doing this and, you know, in our own little way sending out a positive ripple in the world.
Chris: Well, that’s been the central theme of Making Better since we started, every guest we’ve had, and I think we’ve had nine so far, is somebody who’s out there already making the world a better place.
Francis: Exactly…and that was a Big Lebowski reference, by the way. You know, we are the majority, the amount of people who actually want to have a good life and not destroy the earth and each other, is the vast majority. And I think it’s just a matter of time before all of that effort gets harnessed in a way that the power goes to the people again.
Chris: This episode’s guest is Ann Devereux-Mills. She’s a former advertising executive turned activist, and she’s also a four-time cancer survivor. Her primary organization is called Parlay House, which facilitates communication among women to help them with their careers and with their lives. She’s also the producer of a documentary that aired on PBS called “The Return” and she’s an activist on prison reform issues in California. We had a terrific conversation with Ann, and I hope you will all enjoy it as well.
Francis: So, I would like to welcome Ann Devereux-Mills to the show today. Hello, Ann..
Ann: Hey there! Nice to be with you.
Francis: It’s great to have you here. Your life story and your work, I think, is a really great platform for discussing a lot of the issues that we’re concerned with here at Making Better. So if I could, if we could just begin with you giving our listeners a brief overview of your story—where you came from, your history as a CEO and in business, and then where you’ve come to today.
Ann: Sure. Well, I grew up in Seattle before Seattle was the Seattle it is today, where the University of Washington was mostly it, but I was lucky enough to go to a little private school where people like Robert Fulghum, who wrote Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, was my English teacher and Bill Gates was a few years ahead of me, you know, doing the amazing things he was doing, it was just one of those kind of special times. And I left Seattle to go straight to Wellesley, where I had four amazing, unexpected years, because I’d been totally boy-crazy. So there I was in an all-female environment for four years, and really found myself on a whole different level that was terrific, and I graduated with a degree in political economy and it was 1984 and it was a recession, not like the 2008 recession but not a good time to get a job, and I got the one job I could get at the time, which was at an insurance broker called Marsh & McClennan. And got to my first day of work and my boss said, “you know, I hadn’t really thought about what you should be doing, why don’t you go home early and come back tomorrow and I’ll figure it out.” Now, many of us would like to be sent home early for a free afternoon by our boss, but this was the beginning of my corporate life and I was sort of distraught about it. But I decided, OK, I’m going to be a New Yorker, and I was really naive, really naive. So I just decided, OK, I’m going to walk up through Central Park, I’m going to walk up Madison Avenue, cross through Central Park and—I was living on the upper West side—and I got through to the middle of the park, and standing under a tree was a tall, handsome man and I had kind of never really talked to a tall, handsome man as an adult, and he had the Village Voice under his arm, and…it was raining and he asked for directions, and I heard one sentence and I immediately thought, Gay English Actor…and I was wrong, wrong and wrong. He was Irish, he was not an actor, he was straight and he was looking for a job and a date. And I was the safest person walking through Central Park and he asked me out for a drink, and luckily I had one friend in New York from Wellesley and she was working as a bartender, so I sort of knew that if he was a serial killer I would have someone who had seen me last…and of course, I ended up marrying him, and so it’s sort of a fun start of a story that didn’t turn out so well, ‘cuz we went our separate ways, but it was the beginning of my experimenting, doing things that were unfamiliar—marrying someone when I didn’t have a lot of relationship experience, and jumping into things pretty quickly. But my career as an insurance person didn’t last very long, because it was a really bad fit for a feminist in a very stodgy, old boys network, where I could do a whole program with you all talking about the sexual harassment of that time, and I won’t . But what I did do was learn how to understand what I do well, understand what I don’t like and don’t do well, and iterate my career until I got to a place that was a good alignment between my strengths and my interests. And that world was the world of advertising. And so I sort of evolved, first to corporate communications and liked that but didn’t like the small reach of just investors and shareholders and so when I got to the world of advertising, it was because Warner-Lambert, which no longer exists but it was a consumer package goods sister company of Parke-Davis, and I helped them get the ADA seal on Lysterine and do things way back in the day when we were starting to understand some of the health benefits of health care related products. And I just kind of got my groove, between the interesting and deep nature of science and the leadership and communications opportunities that sort of played to my natural tendencies. And so, I started the first direct-to-consumer advertising agency, along with some other leaders in the field pretty early in my career. And then I went on to found and build four different healthcare specialties for advertising agencies that you’ve heard of or seen modeled in Mad Men, like, you know, VBDO and TBWA and Chiat-Day and…you know, it was a fascinating career that I didn’t have any comparison to, so I didn’t really know that the pretty male exclusionary world that I was in didn’t have to be my story, but it was my story. And sort of getting out of the marriage that didn’t go well, it was a very abusive situation and not good, and I ended up being a single mom and running companies, and that was my life. My life was get up at 4:45 in the morning, drive into Manhattan, go to the gym, get to the office, run a company, get home and be a dedicated mom. And that’s very exhausting, mentally and physically, and what happened was, I had a series of cancers, and had some pretty major surgery when going through my divorce, and thought that would be the end of that. And then unfortunately a number of years later when I was in Uganda, where I’d helped start a school for kids who had very little access to anything, I got a call from my oncologist after just a usual follow-up, and he said “eh, sorry to tell you this, but your cancer has accelerated and we have to do some more major surgery. And so I just did what I’m used to doing, and I walked into my boss’s office and I said, “I know it’s…this is a tough economy (this is 2009) very tough time for businesses, and I know it’s not good for me to take two or three weeks off to have the surgery but I gotta do it, so I can live, but I’ll be back and I’ll run the company”…He said, “oh, I’m gonna have someone else run the company.” And in one week, I lost my job, my health and my youngest daughter was heading off to college, so my identity was just exploded, in one single week. So what do you do when…you know, I used to walk into the room and either, “Hi, I’m Ann, I’m the CEO” or “Hi, I’m Ann, I’m the mother of one of these two daughters”…what do you do when all those ways you defined yourself don’t exist anymore? It felt like a betrayal of someone that I’d built companies for and trusted, it felt like confusion because I’d always been a high performer and had multiple successful CEO roles, and the only thing that I had left that hadn’t been exploded that week was a relationship, long-distance relationship that I had with the man who is now my husband. But he was living in Santa Cruz and said “hey, why don’t you, after the surgery, why don’t you come and move out west?” and I’m kind of like, you know, I’m a city girl, I don’t think I can move to Santa Cruz, but if we can negotiate and move to San Francisco, why not? And I had to go through a lot of introspection, of what do I do now? Do I run a business in San Francisco?…but I had time, you know, I don’t think most of us as adults have the benefit of time to stop and think about, do I keep pushing hard against that door that’s straight ahead, or do I stop and look to the sides and around and recalibrate. And I decided to recalibrate, and when I did an assessment of my life to that time, I realized that when I was growing up I was one of three daughters, and when I was at Wellesley I was among 2,000 women, and when I was a mom, a single mom that was the house of hormones with my two daughters and me, and then I spent 20-some years sort of slugging it out in a very male world. And when I got sick, there were very few people who were there for me. And the people that were there for me were a few girlfriends, mostly not from business, and I realized that all the time in business it had been exceptionally transactional. and if I wasn’t in power, people didn’t need me anymore. And that made me long for authentic and meaningful relationships—for myself, I did not start out on a mission to build relationships for anybody but me, but I felt like I needed some intimacy, I needed a trusting environment and to have conversations about things that we weren’t talking about, like what it feels like to be a woman in a man’s world. This is way before MeToo was MeToo…but, you know, what it feels like to be afraid about your health, what it feels like to, you know, have female health challenges that no one talks about. You know, what it feels like to start a new relationship at the age of 50, what it feels like to no longer be the definition of who you were before. And so I just started asking friends of friends, since I didn’t know anyone except my boyfriend at the time in San Francisco, who do you know and do they want to come..and come over to my house and, you know, have a glass of champagne and talk about stuff? And so we did an experiment, and I think there are 12, 15 people in the room, and we had a marvelous time, and really got to talking about meaningful things early, early in the conversation, and at the end of the night, we sort of said, “hey, do you want to do that again?” And everyone sort of agreed and we said, well, why don’t you bring another woman who you think might enjoy this kind of conversation, that’s sort of around content, around some sort of speaker or panel or something. And the next thing I knew, there were 30 and then 50 and pretty soon 2,000 members in San Francisco who would gather (not all 2,000 at one time) in small groups at my home on a monthly basis, and really started to build an authentic conversation and a community of trust that’s way outside of our bubbles. And we’re 20 year olds, and we’re 80 year olds, and we’re working women and we’re women who’ve chosen to stay home or women who have retired or women whose careers haven’t started yet, and a broad range of interests, and….you know, it’s just turned into this sort of magical community that then has been replicated in New York, and now L.A., and London and, you know, I hope soon Washington DC. It was sort of a proof point that the loneliness and need for connection that I felt was actually a much more universal experience, probably even beyond women, but certainly with women that have become part of my extended network. So that was a very long answer to your life story question, but that’s where we are today, is 4,000 women in four cities, soon to be five, and hopefully many hundreds in the years to come.
Chris: I very much identify with having to make a major change in one’s life: before I went blind, I was, you know, this hotshot software engineer/contractor working for a lot of start-ups and venture capitalists on turnaround projects, making a real lot of money, and then the world found out I was blind, and my phone stopped ringing. And, you know, maybe there were still a handful of friends , you know, but as you discussed the transactional nature of relationships, I suddenly realized that almost all the relationships in my life were that way, they were people who wanted something from me rather than actually being friends.
Ann: Yep. It’s a sad state of our society…and I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, you know, does it go back to biblical references, whether it’s on the negative, an eye for an eye, or the sense of do unto others as you’d have them do unto you in sort of a transactional way, or is it about how we behave in the world. And I had a really interesting email exchange with a woman who I respect so highly, who’s been another senior woman multiple-time success, and she sort of said, I was talking about how challenging it is to roll out Parlay* House in cities where I don’t have someone who has the time and the means that I have to really build the content and post these on an ongoing basis, and we were talking about how much do you give of, you know, whether it’s the Parlay House list and community to someone who has something similar for a partnership; and it’s very hard to know what sorts of tradeoffs and exchanges that benefit both organizations, or both people, are meaningful and what are extractive. And I don’t have a clear answer to that.
Francis: I had a friend post something on Facebook today which was a question, “were you happier before or after social media?’ And I just thought that was kind of an interesting question to pose to people…and I love how Parlay House creates these connections, but it’s also, it seems to me, answering the limitations of the connectedness that we all have now through social media, which in some ways makes people and information so available, but at the same time there’s something lacking.
Ann: It’s so interesting you say that, Francis. One of my members in New York is an amazing young woman who has started an online movement called Half the Story, you can look at it, #HalftheStory, and she’s on a mission to encourage young people (she’s in her 20’s), to encourage young people to not just present their most beautiful, most perfect selves on social media but to really talk about things that we don’t talk about. And it’s a strong parallel to what we’re doing at Parlay House. You know, we’re sort of the opposite of social media in that we’re not forcing, but really setting the stage for conversations that are not the conversations that you have on social media. Like how do you rise to the top of a career while you’re battling mental illness or an eating disorder. We’ve talked about that. How do you take some pretty tough setbacks and turn it into strengths later on. We had a woman and her husband who had fallen into a cult and lived in a cult for 20 plus years, they had a child, they were an arranged marriage…they finally escaped the cult, how do you re-enter society after you’ve been living in another, false world? We usually talk about victories and ignore the struggles. And yet everyone struggles. I really made mistakes as a parent, I look back and think, what would I have done differently? I have these two phenomenal daughters, but they both worry when they are struggling, because I never talked about when I was struggling. I was so protecting them, ‘cuz they’d already been through a lot between the divorce and other stuff, I sort of felt like I needed to show them that you could be and do, you know, anything, and be superwoman. And all of a sudden, then, when they had normal people problems and struggles and fears and anxieties that everybody has, they somehow felt they shouldn’t have them, because their mother didn’t have them. And so I’m kind of on a, you know, trying to re-write that story in the second half of my life by talking openly about the things that are hard, and by setting the stage for us to talk about the truths of the human experience, which are so imperfect, and that’s just the nature of humanity.
Chris: I see that in the blindness community all the time, where organizations like the National Federal of the Blind, it’s the biggest membership organization in our space, seem to almost trivialize how hard it is to go through life on a day to day basis in a community with an 80% rate of unemployment, and, you know, they seem to suggest that, you know, blindness is just an inconvenience, and in fact it’s really, really hard, and I think they almost anti-motivate people when they show off, you know, somebody like Eric Weiihenmayer, the first blind man to climb Mount Everest. And I think a lot of people look at Eric, who is a very good guy, he’s a friend of mine, and say, you know, he climbed Mount Everest, you know, I have trouble getting to the Post Office or something, you know, I can’t do anything when we focus so much on the savants, so to speak.
Ann: Yeah, the outliers, sure. Sure, I think that’s true, and that’s why I’m sort of on a mission to create safe spaces to have the conversations that are the real ones. I mean, it’s great to have, we sometimes have superstars, women who have done things that very few women have ever done before, and I think we all get motivated by those stories of, sort of amazing achievement. But that can’t be the only conversation, because it just isn’t reality for most of us, even for those of us who want to be those outliers, those super-high achievers. We’re just not telling the story of their hardship, which I’m sure was there. I don’t know Eric’s story at all, but I’m sure that achievement was not a straight line of “I want to do it, and therefore it’s so.” I’m sure there were setbacks and challenges and risks and we’ve got to talk about those.
Francis: Can you give examples of how what has transpired at Parlay House has …tangible examples of how it’s changed people’s lives?
Ann: Sure. What it does is, it facilitates conversations, either at the event or after the event, that creates bonds that wouldn’t have been there. So we had a health-related topic, and two women were sitting on the coach who were strangers, next to each other, and they started talking about their personal health experiences and it turned out that both of them had ulcerative colitis, which is a painful and often embarrassing disease that affects your ability to have competent relationships, and sexual relationships. And they’d never talked to anyone else about this problem, and they happened to be sitting next to another woman in a safe space who had the same issue, and all of a sudden neither one felt alone. Now that’s a small example, it’s just two people, but it’s two people who all of a sudden didn’t feel alone in the world. And you know, we’ve had other examples, like we had a panel of these women who had followed their husband’s careers to Hong Kong, and they’d sort of put their own ambitions in the back burner because they were supporting the family, and they all sort of realized that they were letting go of themselves and their own goals and they formed a group that was called “the re-group” and they were holding each other accountable. This was not just a career oriented thing: one wanted to write a book, one … each wanted to do something different, but they met on an ongoing basis to hold each other accountable. Well, I didn’t know that in the audience that night were a number of women who, by anybody’s definition, would seem to be happy and successful and whatever, but they were feeling the same way, they were feeling stuck, and they were feeling like they need somebody to work with them, to sort of get on track to the next thing they wanted to do. And so another group that was very very similar was formed by women that I didn’t know and I didn’t know was happening, but happened because someone was willing to talk about that journey. So, there are so many examples. There are people who have gotten jobs, there have been people who have found an outlet for interests in philanthropy or supporting a cause, but most of the examples are the really personal one, where there’s all of a sudden an empathy, and I think empathy is kind of the most, most important component to everything that I’m trying to do is this ability to see and hear and not judge, but actually just see yourself in the position of another and hear and listen to what they need and somehow provide some of that as one new human to another.
Chris: I guess it must also help people feel less like the “other”…
Ann: Exactly. Exactly, and you know, when you look at our gatherings, you really see a diversity that, you know, the streets of San Francisco are generally not filled with people of color. And I see the difference, because I’m bi-coastal, I see the difference in New York where, at least visually, there’s a greater range of skin color on the streets than there is in the city of San Francisco. But in all of our gatherings, whether it’s San Francisco or New York, not only do we have age diversity, but we have, we have racial diversity, we have income diversity, we have diversity of sexual orientation…and it just feels so great to be…be finding connections that appreciate our differences. It’s not finding the similarities, because I think that’s…kind of bullshit, I think it’s recognizing that in our differences there are opportunities to learn, opportunities to feel yourself in someone else’s shoes, to think outside of your norm, to, you know, to just connect and stretch in ways that aren’t in our little bubbles. And I love that.
Francis: We were talking earlier about the transactional nature of business and you know, to a large extent, capitalism as it’s being practiced in this country today…and also talking about this idea of connection with people and the value of that. But, there are some people for whom these, like that transactional type of environment, it suits them, and it serves them very well. And I think partly one of the reasons why you see such a concentration of people who are more predatory and lack empathy in the higher stratas of business is because it’s sort of where their—at least in the system as it is right now, it’s where, it’s their comfort zone to some extent. So, given the heterogenous nature of our society, how do we say who have lots of empathy and want connection that’s meaningful and soulful between people in community, like, how do we have our needs met and they also have their needs met? Are they in conflict?
Ann: That’s a complex and interesting question. I mean, one of the experts that we’ve had speak to Parlay House a few times, and it’s always sold out, is a woman named Wendy Bahari who’s one of the national experts on narcissism. She talks about how to deal with the narcissists in your life. And, you know, we have a narcissist as our President right now, most of us have worked with narcissists in our career, and there’s a lot of data that shows that many of the most successful leaders have very significant elements of narcissism as part of their personalities. But, you know, we’re at a stage in society right now where we’re sort of looking at people as awful, or wonderful, as, you know, horrific or like a deity, and you know, I think that that’s a big mistake. And so there are people who are much more out for themselves and are willing to throw other people under the bus to achieve their own successes, and, you know, I don’t think we can control them, I think we can only control our own personal behaviors. But when you understand what is happening behind, in the emotional self, of those people who act in a narcissistic or self-absorbed way, a lot of times it’s actually driven by really significant insecurities that are being sort of masked and covered up by this aggressive, bullying, selfish behavior. And the more we can understand and empathize, even with those people whose behaviors seem more like terrorists than like humans, it helps understand where they’re coming from, it helps bridge the communication gap and helps us to not take those behaviors personally. I think we all have choice, of some…to some extent, but those of us who are able to make our own choices on how we want to live in the world, to try to find understanding for those who live very differently than us as much as possible, that’s sort of all we have control over. All we really have control over are ourselves and our …our decisions on how we live our lives. So I can’t reconcile that, but I can tell you, we’re not as black and white as it might seem when you cut it, cut it the way you just cut it.
Francis: Well, you know, with regards to our President, he is definitely, I think, making the paradigm for change that we have right now…seem much more like it needs to be evolved to…I think a lot of the old ways that we’ve relied on for change, like say marches and activism…it doesn’t seem like they really do much anymore…
Ann: Well, I guess that’s…I think that might be a little bit instrumentalist. I mean, I know that when Trump was elected and I was in Washington at the first Women’s March and I was there with my daughter who is of a whole different generation, I’ve always been someone who is a thoughtful and engaged member of society, or I’ve at least tried to be. But I was not an activist in the marching, protesting sort of way, and I think that there was an element of momentum that happened, that isn’t sort of end-result oriented but is part of this process of learning about our sense of power. And I think what you’re getting at, Francis, and I probably agree with you, is that the system is so broken that this two-party system, even our Constitution and how some of the things are being interpreted, related to gun control and other stuff, just doesn’t serve our society as well as our Founding Fathers intended. And to really move forward as a society, we might need to go to that really scary place that is after what was, and before we figured out what will be, and that’s a really hard thing to do. I mean I’ve done that as a human, as a personal…on my personal path, where I had to end my career in order to have the time to think about what else I valued. Can we do that as a society without it being too scary or chaotic? Or, you know, having the fear that an equally horrible next person will take over? I don’t know. But I agree with you that just going down the same path and making tiny jogs to the left or the right, in terms of political parties or policies, isn’t making the massive level change that we probably need to be a good society.
Francis: And massive level change is something that you in your own personal life know well…
Ann: Yeah. Some of that was forced on me, and when I realized that things were, the rug was pulled out from under me, I chose to take a really scary leap. I mean, it was so scary to not just do what I knew how to do, and just go back and run another company and have the same identity and, you know, build my self-image around this idea that I was a CEO because that gave me comfort. You know, to sort of start again and say, how do I define myself next, and how do I reconcile that I’m not the only bread earner in the family, that I’m contributing in a way that some, who are very income-oriented, or title-oriented, might not value. You know, I still find myself, when people say “what do you do?” I sometimes just subconsciously revert to, “well, I used to run advertising agencies, and now I…” you know, fill in the blank. Instead of just having the confidence to say, “I founded an organization that’s on a mission to empower women and to create safe spaces for the conversations that they can’t have other places. I mean, that sounds pretty good, when you…but it doesn’t feel as much of a success in the societal norms as I would want it to. I still fall back, sometimes, on what I used to do, and that’s a shame.
Francis: It’s also understandable, given how successful you were…that is pretty significant.
Ann: Yeah, but you know, when, when I’m at the end of my life, and I now know that could be any day, just because I’ve faced that reality, having been a CEO is not the most meaningful thing to me. I mean, I loved it, It’s in my wheelhouse, it’s where I feel very comfortable, but the level of pride that I feel about that is very different than—and not meaningful to me—as the level of pride I have with finding things that help people on a more empathetic level.
Francis: And perhaps even the sublime is relative…
Ann: Yeah. It is. he-he.
Chris: We were just talking about massive change that needs to happen in society, but taking on massive change all in one lump seems rather difficult. And I think I read this in some of your blog articles—making small, minor changes a little at a time and, you know sort of like the butterfly effect, seeing them spread?
Ann: Absolutely. And, you know, I write a monthly blog called One Small Thing. And it’s really a way of trying to say to all of us who feel overwhelmed by the amount of change that we feel needs to happen in society, to not be paralyzed by the size of the problem, but rather be empowered by the types of things I talked about that happen at Parlay House, by one conversation that might be meaningful, by one action that can start a cascade for someone else and someone else after them. And I just—I’m finishing up a research project that’s part of a book that I’m writing, where we tracked…you know, it’s hard to know what, I call it the “thing after the thing” is…so you do something without the expectation of return for someone else. It’s a stranger, or someone that you know that could use your help, and you assume that it was positively received and maybe even that something happened that they passed it on in some way after that, but you don’t know. So, we conducted this research study that we’re just getting the results in now, where we grouped people by whether they were an instigator of one of those actions that were meaningful to someone else, whether they were the recipient of something and what they did with it, or whether they witnessed it, was the third category, and what happens when people witness a meaningful action from one human to another. And the amazing thing was, that not only was there something that the recipient did for another person based on the recognition of how they benefitted from the kindness, but the witnesses also were motivated to behave in a very similar way. So that gave me a sense that this doesn’t even have to be a one to one to one cascade, but that there’s a multiplier effect when people understand their own power to help another in some way and then feel inspired to do it.
Chris: One thought that comes to mind is, I don’t know if you know the city of San Francisco has a law against restaurants giving free food to homeless people, and I know a terrific restaurant that I enjoy, and it’s actually kind of on the expensive side, but every night they take all the food that wasn’t served and one of their people bring it to a park and feed all the homeless people, it’s…some homeless people who recognize me walking down the street will whisper to me where the food will be that night.
Ann: That’s really awesome. I love that story. Yeah, that’s harmless anarchy, in my opinion. Maybe I don’t know all of the potential fears and risks, whether it’s tainted food or who knows what, what…
Chris: No, it has nothing to do with tainted food, it had to do with…it made homeless people hang out…and, you know, wait for the food, for the free food. It was a way to keep the homeless people away from the restaurants.
Ann: You know, a lot of these laws sort of, think, happen because you have a reactionary or strong person who’s pissed off about something, and they go over the top in creating legislation that makes things hard on humanity. My husband and I spent a number of years working on a Proposition in California that was in response to a very similar type of thing, it was the father of Polly Klaas who was unfortunately kidnapped from her home and killed by someone who was a formerly incarcerated person. And her dad was obviously, as we all would be, so distraught about what had happened that he was behind an initiative that resulted in California having one of the most tough 3-strikes laws in the country, and that meant if you had two prior felonies, and you were convicted of anything—and by anything, I mean, we have examples of stealing a piece of pizza, or a golf club from a store, or writing a bad check—these are not violent acts, these are, you know, small…you were sentenced to life in prison. And we have thousands of people in the California prison system who ended up with their lives taken away from them because of that law that was based on someone’s personal and traumatic experience, but resulted in a lack of fairness for everybody affected afterwards. And you know, we were fortunate enough to have our Proposition win with 70% of Californians supporting a much more fair third-strike policy that required that third strike be serious and violent before you take away someone’s entire life. And 3,000 people had their sentences re-assessed and have returned to the community with very low recidivism rates…it’s proof that we have to beware of reactionary laws that are disproportionate, and as a society if we can sort of base our actions on concepts of fairness or empathy rather than fear, I think we’re gonna make some progress. And again, that was a very small change to one law in one state, but the cascade that happened at that time was, it went from 3,000 Californians having their sentences retroactively re-evaluated to a new and fairer policy which meant people who were arrested subsequently did not face that same penalty, and rolled all the way to the White House, where Obama, before he left office, began pardoning people for minor third strike drug offenses across the country. And so that’s just an example of how—this was a lot work, but it was a very small Proposition related to one law in one state, and it ended up being a national phenomenon. And so that’s what gives me hope in this time where there doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of hope.
Chris: You made a documentary about someone released after the 3-strikes…
Ann: I did. Yeah.
Chris: I tried to find it, I couldn’t find it online, and…
Ann: It’s on Netflix, it’s called “The Return,” it was a PBS sponsored film and it was, we won an Emmy nomination for it, and it was an amazing story that uncovered the experience of not only the individuals, as they returned to society, but their families, and really uncovered, sort of, the next issue my husband and I are working on, which is related to mental illness as a huge problem in our society that’s contributing to our packed prisons and, you know, we have many, many, many people who don’t have access to mental health care in terms of diagnosis, in terms of treatment, in terms of care, and then they’re afraid or they’re confused and they break into an empty building because they don’t have a place to stay, or they act out because they don’t have access to medical care, and instead of helping them we throw them in prisons where their disease just gets worse. And so, that film not only was our way of telling the story about the importance of hiring and understanding the side of people who are re-entering society, but also helped us understand what to do next and what to focus on next in terms of helping restore mental health support. You know, Reagan, when he was President, understood that the mental health care system was relatively broken in our country, and so he did away with mental health institutions. And I don’t think it was completely ill-motivated, because they were pretty bad institutions, but what it means now is we’re starting from scratch and trying to find ways to support people who have not had the benefits of mental health care that we, who are more privileged, have.
Chris: I had a good friend released from jail here in Florida, he was junkie…and it was just a minor stealing thing, but his lawyer negotiated probation for him, and he was released from County jail with absolutely nothing waiting for him on the outside, and within four weeks he was back on the heroin, he overdosed and died in July.
Ann: Unfortunately, the situation of your friend is all too common, and we have, as part of our 3-strikes work, heard many stories of people being released from prison in paper suits, without the $200 they’re supposed to have to get them to wherever they’re going next, and many of them, because they don’t have a choice, return to either the abusive homes or the gangs or, you know, because they don’t have a plan and a program, there are terrible stories of people released in a wheelchair, at night, without any support, who sleep in alleys until they can figure out how to get to a place that can help them. One of the programs that my husband and I have been sponsoring is a program called Ride Home, where it’s run by people who are formerly incarcerated themselves, and they wait outside of the prisons, knowing that our Prop 36 folks are being released, and they help them create a plan to get to transitional housing that helps coach them on getting a job and developing a resume and giving them a safe space to transition back into society. But, you know, there aren’t enough of those Ride Home people all over the country to help other have that re-entry that can hopefully make them successful. And, you know, sadly your friend’s situation where, because he didn’t have any support and he didn’t have any money and, you know, where he went straight back to the drug addicted life that he had had before, is all too common. Again, what’s an easy thing that we can do to help create change, if that’s an issue that you care about, contributing towards a Ride Home program or offering an entry-level job to someone who is coming back into society is one of the greatest things that you can do that truly has meaning for someone else.
Chris: I find it interesting that the prison reform issue doesn’t seem to be a hardline left or right wing thing. I mean, we have Bernie Sanders working with Rand Paul in the United States Senate on sentencing reform, and you’d never think those two guys would work together on anything.
Ann: It’s so funny that you say that, because we noticed, when we were doing our fundraising for the Proposition, that we actually got…we tend to lean left in our political views, and we got as much or more support from Republicans as we did from Democrats, and in fact this was not a party-oriented initiative, it was a belief of people who value fairness over other measures that came together and supported and passed this. You know, when you pass with 70% of the vote, you’ve got to have a lot of people on both sides that believe in what you’re doing, and I love the fact that Bernie and Rand Paul are working together, or whatever those random divides are that we call Republicans and Democrats, or conservatives and liberals, because it really, what they’re uniting on are shared values…and that’s what we should be doing as a nation, to be honest. You know, this party system is so kind of arbitrary, and it forces us to dig our heels in without thinking. And I think if we did a little more thinking and feeling and a little less rule-following, we might benefit.
Francis: I agree with you so much about that. Part of the impetus to create this podcast for me was to try to start staking out alternatives to those kind of nineteenth, twentieth century political…the vocabulary, and just the boxes it puts people in…because I think a lot of that has lost its usefulness to us now.
Ann: Right. Completely agree.
Francis: I think there’s also two really different orientations towards how we relate to each other. And one is sort of the Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest…you know, it’s more of like, I guess what you would associate with a male kind of energy, which is predatory and…it’s about, if anything, thinning the herd. But then you also have another completely almost opposite approach, which is that we should be focussing on the weakest link, and that the health of the whole is something that is going to be increased by us helping each other, and those in most need. They’re very, very different approaches, I guess, to how the world functions, as a result.
Ann: Yeah, my reaction to that is, you’re right, and both are pretty polar in their approach. I’m not so sure that “thinning of the herd” or focussing exclusively on those with the most need is going to be the answer, and I think it’s just got to be brought down to a much more micro and individual level. I just think we, as a society, are talking so much in black and whites, in polarizing and sort of, if you’re not with me, you’re horrible, rather than, if you’re not with me, you might have something I can learn from that makes me more well rounded…I’m just feeling a little exasperated by the state of our thought processes, that “are you with me or are you against me” with nothing in the middle.
Francis: What I wanted to relate that to, as well, is you’re very active in…women’s movements, and you’re like a real trailblazer in terms of women in business, and I think right now what I’m starting to see, could be wrong, but are…people who are coming up and shaking things up, women, who almost seem like a new sort of archetype than we had before, because, say like in the days of Thatcher, for example. You had women who took offices of power, but a lot of their policies were indistinguishable from men, in any way. But I’m wondering if there is something uniquely feminine, to me, it would be something that was less like that survival-of-the-fittest kind of mindset, but something that we really actually need as a society right now, especially with regards to the state of the environment and our..
Ann: Yeah. You know, my gut reaction to that—and it’s probably not fair, because I know plenty of men who have this trait too—but I think there is the female desire to nurture, that comes from bearing children, and, you know, needing to support lives that are not sustainable on their own, that we sort of do when we have newborn babies that came out of our bodies…there is something about tending to and nurturing others that is more female, at least historically has been more female. I know many nurturing men as well, but, you know, I would say in my experience that quality is predominantly female quality. And you know, men needed to defend, and while they were off, you know, hunting and fighting off enemies, women were tending to families and tending to the land, and those genetics stay with us through the generations, and I think to be more nurturing as a society incorporates the empathy that I talked about earlier, and the awareness of, and value of, human life and what we need to survive. And that includes the earth being a healthy and sustainable place and, you know, it’s a whole cascade of what we need in order to not only live, but to be good humans. And so my new archetype is a weird combination of a stereotypic nurturing woman, but she’s now powerful and capable of not only nurturing in the home, but nurturing as a leader. And I tried, I don’t know what, I don’t know retrospectively what kind of leader I was, but I always intended to be a leader who empowered and nurtured and helped those that worked with me thrive. And, you know, I kind of think instead of trying to be masculine and gain power by behaving in the same way that our male successful predecessors have behaved, that there is an opportunity for all of us to take on some of those more loving qualities. And I know loving in a work sense, in a leadership sense, is kind of a weird idea. But if we make it acceptable to feel and care in addition to winning, I think it’s gonna create a better society.
Francis: I agree. Well my own personal evidence for it was, raising a son, I believed very strongly when I first had him that any kind of male-female sort of…I thought it was just modeling and what they were nurtured into being, and then what I discovered is that when he was like four, he was running around playing with trucks and stuff, and most of the girls were playing with dolls, and that wasn’t 100%, but it’s just one example of how, like at a really young age, he was very boyish.
Ann: Yep. And my sister did a very similar experiment. She had a son, she’s the only one of the three girls who has not had just daughters, and she had a son and wanted him to play with dolls and not have weapons and…he would turn anything into a weapon just by nature. And he’s the sweetest, nicest human. He’s not, you know, he’s not a violent kid or anything else, completely normal, now lovely man, but she tried to take away those gender stereotypes and he just, without even knowing, just created them in his own way himself.
Francis: It’s something you see universally in that age group. It was, it was very surprising to me. But, you know, there’s a way to work with it, I think, that…what I tried to do is figure out role models for my son, where he could feel like embracing that sort of warrior energy, but directing it in positive way. And honestly, it’s really hard to find good male role models in the media, because I guess the media doesn’t really benefit very much from these people who are living these quiet, heroic lives, there has to be like some huge conflict or something. So, I had a really hard time doing that, but what we came down to is that Mother Earth needs to be protected, and it’s your job to protect Mother Earth. So it became a way for him to sort of use his masculinity but at the service of the feminine. And I think that really stuck with him. It directs it in a way, I think, that’s necessary right now.
Ann: What’s he doing now, Francis?
Francis: He just got accepted to a high school that I’m really happy about, and he’s taking Kung Fu and Yoga, and I work very hard to keep him off of the video games…and that’s been a really big challenge. His generation is growing up with video games and YouTubers and all this stuff that we never had, and it’s…it’s new, it’s a little hard to navigate it as a parent.
Ann: It is.
Francis: Regarding the future, do you feel optimistic about the future, and if so why?
Ann: You know, I’m inherently an optimistic person, and so I’m not sure I could say I feel optimistic, there are things I worry about. I certainly worry about our environment and its ability to sustain us, given how we’re treating it, but I also feel that the pendulum historically in our nation and in our world has swung back towards center always. So for those of us who feel right now like the emphasis is on things that are not according to our values, and our leadership is not supporting what we feel is important and how we would want to behave as humans, I have to have a longer term view, and know that, you know, when I look through history in the times I wasn’t alive, or even earlier in my life when people were either running our country or massive acts of destruction or murder or violence made us fearful about what our society was, that there is some balance that’s in our system that will allow us to have more positive and better feeling times in the future. I just have to believe that in order to, in order to live and so…you know, I believe in good humans acting in small ways towards others to do what they can do personally, and I believe in our system in some form to get that pendulum back, back to a place where we all feel we can live with it a little more. And, you know, sadly I fear that it might take another five years before we see the pendulum swing back, but I hope to still be alive and making positive changes both in the meantime and when it comes back in to accelerate the ways that we can be a kinder society. So I’m working on it on a day to day basis, and I haven’t lost hope. I don’t think you can. We can’t throw up our arms, and we have to just keep doing whatever we can do, given the current circumstance. I’m on a mission to do that.
Francis: Yeah, I think a lot of us are, actually. You know who I think are, one of our big hopes is? My son’s generation…they’re growing up knowing that there’s an urgent need to change the way we’re interacting with the environment, and that sort of thing.
Chris: For the first time in decades, we’re starting to see young people organize among themselves. We have the Parkland kids, and now we have the climate kids who are skipping school every Friday to protest…I mean, I think we’re actually seeing energy among young people for the first time in what I think is a couple of decades.
Ann: Yeah, and I see my kids, who are little bit older than Francis’s, not being willing to take jobs unless there are good for society components in the actual companies. And, you know, I didn’t grow up in a time where we gave that thought. Corporate social responsibility was emerging, you know, fifteen years ago, and everybody thought, wow, that’s an amazing idea, a company can do well and also do good, and now the next generation is saying, well, we’re not going to work for you unless you do both. That’s awesome.
Francis: It is. I think our kids’ generation are gonna see people that came before them sort as, like, these crazy kids who just trash the place, and it’s time to clean up. And they’ll have, I’m sure when technology is really applied to the service of, say, cleaning the oceans, and cleaning the air, and…what we’re capable of doing is gonna be stunning. And it’s just a matter of will, and it’s a matter of, I guess, somehow creating the choice for people in the way that they recognize that, in a very clear, finite way.
Chris: I had a young friend write to me this morning, he just turned down a job well over $200,000 a year—this kid’s only 23 years old—because he did not want to work on artificial intelligence drones that are used to kill people, and he accepted a job paying about half of what he was offered, where he could work for a company that does accounting software or something..benign.
Ann: Well, it’s very enlightened of a young person, you know, to be led by values rather than by money, that’s fabulous. He probably can live with himself and feel good, that’s awesome.
Chris: Well, we always end just with the same basic question: Do you have anything you’d like to plug, or…promote or…whether it’s something you’re working on, or something somebody else is working on, or just something you’d like to put out there that people might be interested in?
Ann: Sure. I would say if you want the monthly reminder of small ways that you can personally make a difference in the world, go on my website anndevereuxmills.com and sign up for One Small Thing, which is that monthly newsletter/blog. But I think, assuming that you don’t need that reminder and you just have a way to live your life each day where, at the end of the day, you sort of say, “was I the person that I would like to have been” and if so, great, ‘cuz I helped someone or I did something that feels additive to society, and if I didn’t, it’s OK, I thought about it and tomorrow’s another day to do that. So I’d encourage you to live the small life, because if we all do that, we’re gonna end up creating big and meaningful positive changes at a time when it feels like the world needs it most.
Chris: Well, thank you so much for coming on Making Better.
Ann: Well, thank you for making it better.
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Ann: Chris, you have a phenomenal voice. I’m sure people have told you that before, but this is a good vehicle for you, cuz your voice is very soothing….