Hayley Stephens is a paranormal researcher and she lives in what she refers to as “Weird Wiltshire” in the United Kingdom. she is studying towards a BSc (Hons) Psychology. she works full time and in between working and studying, she researches paranormal claims and phenomena. Hayley hosts The Spooktator podcast and is also active on Twitter. Click here to read Hayley’s full biography and feel free to browse her website, which she updates frequently. As with all Making Better episodes, this one is fully transcribed. Click here to read a full transcript of Episode 8.
Making Better Podcast: Hayley Stevens
Announcer: 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: Welcome to Episode 8 of the Making Better Podcast. This episode features Hayley Stevens, the paranormal investigator from England. I’ve known Hayley for quite some time, and we’re pretty good friends. I was pleased when I was sitting beside when she won the Occam Award for the Best Blog in the skeptical world. Hayley’s been investigating haunted houses and other places around England for a long time. She’s never found an actual ghost, and usually comes up with a logical explanation. So without any more introduction, let’s get onto the interview.
Chris: Hayley Stevens, welcome to Making Better!
Hayley: Thank you very much for having me.
Chris: You and I have known each other for about seven years, I think it was, when we met at that QED conference, …
Hayley: Yeah. It’s a while ago now…
Francis: So is QED a cruise liner or something?
Chris: QED is a conference that goes on in Manchester, England every year, actually Marsh is one of the coordinators…and it stands for Question, Explore, Discover, and it’s a really interesting conference that mixes, sort of, science enthusiasm and humanism and….just interesting things. It has just the coolest audience of any conference I go to with any regularity. Just everyone there is just so nice…and you get a real great mixture of people.
Hayley: You do. It’s …yeah, and you always learn something that you didn’t expect to learn. So you know what the talks are going to be about, but you come away with all sorts of new information and knowledge—it’s great.
Chris: So you’re most well-known within the skeptical movement as a paranormal investigator, and most specifically a ghost hunter. Can you tell us how you got into that—and a bit of your journey with it?
Haley: Yeah, sure. I mean, I used to be a ghost hunter. I wouldn’t kind of class myself as ghost hunter anymore, and that’s because when I first sort of became involved in researching the paranormal, I did it from a position of somebody who believed in the paranormal and would go looking for evidence of ghosts and hauntings and so on at the weekend. And then a few years of doing that led to me having this kind of realization that, actually, what I was doing and the conclusions that I was reaching didn’t really make sense. I started to find out more information about the kind of rational reasons that cause people to see and experience strange things and about the psychology behind strange experiences that people attribute to ghosts and monsters and so on. But I’ve always been interested in these stories of ghosts and monsters and hauntings and all sorts of weird things. So rather than just kind of turning my back on it and finding maybe a new hobby that’s a bit less weird, I carried on researching the paranormal but from a more, kind of, what I hope is a more rational perspective. The position I take now is, I’m not interested in proving or disproving that ghosts are real and that monsters are real, I’m more interested in what’s going on that causes someone to see a ghost. And that might be finding the rational explanation, you know, they’ve seen some kind of illusion or maybe it’s a hoax or something like that; or what it is about the person that made them interpret it as a ghost when maybe somebody else wouldn’t have reached the same conclusion.
Francis: I would like to hear a definition of what skepticism really involves. Is it a movement, is it a philosophy, what…when you say “skepticism” what is it?
Haley: Well, kind of at the core, skepticism is just balancing up the evidence for a claim. So if someone says, “I’ve invented a time machine,” you’d want to see the evidence, you know, you would be skeptical of that claim. When somebody says that they’ve seen a ghost, you can be skeptical of that claim and look at the evidence, and familiarize yourself with the evidence and what it means and what it doesn’t mean. And the same can be said for medical claims: so when people say that they have a cure for cancer, you can examine that claim and see if it actually stands up to scrutiny. If the evidence is there, you can look at the research that’s been done. Was it—does it have a double-blind control in place, is it good research, has it been peer-reviewed and so on. And on the flip side of that, there is a movement, a skeptic movement, where people who have a sort of…I wouldn’t say a passion for disbelieving things, ‘cause that sounds really quite sad, but people who are kind of driven to maybe making the world a bit better and kind of protecting people from the sort of hocus-pocus out there that other people try to (sh*?) onto other people. There is a movement where people will kind of conduct activism and in the UK a lot of it is grassroots activism, whereas in the US it tends to be more organized. And we’ll try and raise awareness around bogus claims and so on.
Chris: While it’s more grassroots both on the UK and Australia, it’s much more effective in both the UK and Australia. The top-down approach here in the US creates these pyramids where very little of any actual effect ever happens.
Haley: Yeah. I suppose as well, the fact that it’s quite, and has always been quite grassroots over here in the UK and also, as you say, in Australia, means that you don’t have to be—it does help to be an expert in a certain field—but you don’t have to be an expert to actually make a contribution. And your [face?] doesn’t have to fit—you can help people, or you can become an activist. One of the biggest things that happened in the sort of grassroots movement here in the UK, probably about a decade ago now, was a homeopathic “overdose”—all across the country, people a homeopathic “overdose” to kind of protest the fact that one of the biggest high street pharmacies over here was selling homeopathic medicine to people. And that was literally a grassroots thing, and I remember going along to the one nearest to where I live, and we downed our homeopathic tablets and we made the press and there were groups of people watching what we were doing. And that has kind of snowballed over time to the point where now, the NHS, the National Health Service here, have de-funded homeopathic medicine. So the money that we have here to be spent on medication will not be going on placebo medication—that’s really good news, especially in a time where our country is facing austerity and there are medications that do work for certain conditions that people get denied. So, you know, the power behind grassroots skepticism isn’t necessarily weaker than organized skepticism, like a top-down system, like you say, in the US. So yeah it can be quite inspiring, and I think it’s the same across Europe, as far you see grassroots organizations popping up all across Europe as well.
Chris: In the process you went through as you became more rational about the paranormal things, I mean, did a lightbulb just go off one day and say, this is irrational, or was it slower process and then how did you get in from there, into skepticism in a broader manner?
Haley: I think it was a lightbulb moment in me realizing that I needed to change what I was doing. However, the kind of path that led to that point was an interesting one, so…there was somebody that I was friends with who was a skeptic. They described themselves as a skeptic, identified as such, and we would have discussions about paranormal research and ghost hunting. And they were civil discussions, and we both knew that we disagreed with one another, but we just talked about it like two adults, basically. And the points that were being made, I didn’t necessarily always have a kind of a defense to the arguments being raised, and that got me thinking. And I think probably in the middle of those discussions with this friend—cause I used to be part of a small group of people who would go out investigating alleged hauntings, but we did it with the intention of finding a ghost or looking for evidence of ghosts. Around that time we went on an investigation to this pub in the city of Swindon, and we caught the landlord faking activity, we literally caught him red-handed. And it made me realize that actually, we weren’t really as aware of our surroundings as we had always thought that we were, and we were not 100% in control of the case and the stuff going on in the location whilst we were there. We were not aware of everything going on, and I think that was probably when I had the lightbulb moment and realized that we probably could have been tricked on other occasions. And if it wasn’t necessarily tricked by somebody kind of outright committing a hoax, we could have been fooling ourselves without necessarily realizing it, because we were not aware of everything that was going on around us, that was kind of when I had the lightbulb moment. And at that point, I didn’t initially become immediately involved in the skeptic movement, but a friend of mine at the time just happened to be…he was sort of looking to maybe start a podcast on which he would talk rationally about the latest kind of paranormal news stories, in the newspapers and on the internet, and I happened to…something a bit like this, where I was talking, it wasn’t a podcast, it was like an online radio show. I did an interview with them, and he happened to hear this, and asked me if I wanted to do the podcast with him. So I did that, the podcast became semi-successful, we got quite a large following, which was great, completely unexpected. We’re not quite sure why…
Chris: Which podcast was this? Righteous Indignation?
Hayley: Yeah, it was called Righteous Indignation, and we honestly didn’t know what to expect, and then suddenly we were getting like 10,000 downloads immediately every episode, we just didn’t understand why, but we just carried on doing what we were doing, ‘cause obviously people liked it. And from there, somebody who ran a Skeptics in the Pub group in Nottingham asked me if I would go and speak for the Skeptics group, and I did, and then I started getting more and more requests and so I started meeting more and more people who were involved in the UK skeptic movement. And I realized that actually I got on with a lot of them, and we had similar interests, and they wanted to hear what I had to say, and it just kind of snowballed from there, really.
Chris: One can buy a lot of different devices on Amazon these days to help you find ghosts and detect spirits and things like that, have you encountered some of these devices, and can you tell us how they might work?
Hayley: Well, I can tell you that they don’t work. Yes, I’ve encountered some of them. There is a lot of money to be made from selling ghost hunting technology, and a lot of it tends to be stuff that’s been borrowed from other fields. So, EMF meters, for example, electro-magnetic field meters, they have a purpose, but ghost hunters sort of borrowed them and then adapt the purpose, and EMF meters will be used by ghost hunters to see if they can monitor any fluctuations in the EMF of a location. And if the levels go up and down, that will be attributed to a ghost. Largely, this sort of equipment is used to communicate with ghosts. So there’s something called electronic voice phenomena, which are these recordings that people make in an attempt to capture the voices of ghosts, and traditionally electronic voice phenomena or EVP as it’s known, as it’s shortened to, was always kind of done—you would record, and then you would play it back and hear the voices. But as technologies have developed, we now have these devices called “spirit boxes” on the market, and they sort of—the claim, at least—is that they enable you to do “live” communication with ghosts. And you turn the machine on, it basically skips through AM and FM radio frequencies, so you get this kind of juttery sounding all[?} and you also get snippets of the broadcasts that they’re skipping through. And it basically claimed that these noises and this skipping of the channels and the frequencies enables the ghosts to communicate with you, so they’re able to somehow, to use that to communicate with you.
Chris: Basically, it’s the sounds you used to get from an old stereo when you just spun the tuning dial…
Hayley: Absolutely. And it has a lot of white noise in there, too, and humans, we are sort of pre-dispositioned to find meaning where there is none. So if you’re sat in a house or a building that somebody has told you is haunted, and you’re listening to one of these machines skipping through, and you know that the building is supposed to be haunted by, let’s say…here in England we’ve got a lot of grey ladies. So let’s say that you know that the building is supposed to be haunted by a grey lady called Jane. You’re going to be listening for things that you would expect to hear—you don’t do it necessarily intentionally, so you’re not, you know, most ghost hunters aren’t out to sort of cherry-pick their data and to falsify data in any way that supports the idea that somewhere is haunted. But because we are pattern-seeking creatures, and that just happens to be the way that our brains work, you find the words that you would expect to hear in this jumble of audio. So it sort of, these devices sort of create false positives, which are then presented as evidence of ghosts. But largely ghost hunters will just borrow equipment from all sorts of places and adapt it into ways in which they can look for ghosts. So for another example, is the Microsoft Kinect which is a device which you can use to kind of interact with your game consoles—well, ghost hunters will use that to find ghosts. It kind of blows my mind, because it’s just really irrational, but it also kind of demonstrates—I think if you look hard enough, you can see ghosts wherever you want to see them, really.
Chris: Your blog, which has won an Occam Award, covers all kinds of different topics. I mean, you have opinions on all sorts of things, I mean you’ve written about..
Hayley: I do..
Chris: …sex workers, you’ve written about punching Nazis, you’ve written about all sorts of stuff…why don’t you elaborate on some of the other things you’re interested in?
Hayley: Yeah. So, I mean, the punching Nazis thing—I think that kind of conversation on my blog happened, I think probably just before, or in the leadup Trump being elected, or maybe just after. And it was sort of more commentary on the whole kind of alt-right movement that was happening in the US and these demonstrations that were happening on the street between basically fascists and anti-fascists. And how the people kind of got caught up in this discourse about whether it’s OK to punch a Nazi, and I think there was that chap, I can’t remember his name now, he was…
Chris: Richard Spencer…
Hayley: That’s him. Yes, he was being interviewed and then got punched, and a lot of people were debating whether it was OK to punch him. And so I just kind of wrote a blog post with my thoughts on that. And yeah, I’ll blog about feminism, and atheism, politics, all sorts of things, because even though my skepticism tends to be mostly about the paranormal, it applied to all areas of life and you know, these are topics that, they affect me but they also affect other people. And I’ve always just used my blog as an outlet for my ideas. I never realized back when I started blogging, when I was in my early 20s, that people would continue to read it and then nominate me for the award, which was lovely. And the number of people that read the blog has always surprised me, it’s always proven to be popular, but I’ve never really kind of wanted to only write about the paranormal. It is my blog in which I write about paranormal, but it’s also the blog on which I write about life in general.
Francis: Can people be divided into those that are sort just gullible, and those that know that they’re “taking the piss” or just lying to people? How does happen that somebody comes up with this stuff, and do they really believe it?
Haley: That’s a really good question, and I don’t think that there is necessarily a straight answer to that. I mean, some of the technology now has been influenced by American ghost-hunting television shows, so it’s hard to know. I mean, there’s an American television show called “Ghost Hunters”…follows a group called TAPS—I’m not sure if they’re still aired now or not, but they started using, for example, they promoted the use of a laser-grid pen on ghost hunts, it would enable you to see things moving in the dark. A better solution to that would be to turn the lights on, but when it comes to a ghost-hunting TV show, you have to…you can’t help but be a bit skeptical about their intentions when they’re promoting this sort of equipment. There are online stores and websites dedicated to people making equipment which is purposely built to help people find ghosts on ghost hunts, and it’s in their best intentions for people to believe that this equipment works; whereas on the other hand, you do have people who genuinely are interested in whether ghosts are real or not, and they’re not meaning any harm, but they are being illogical in the way they approach it. And when they sort of borrow equipment or adapt equipment, it’s because they think that they’re being rational, they think that what they’re doing makes them scientific. So there’s a whole range—it really depends on the equipment, and sort of who’s created it, ‘cause I think most of the time people have the best intentions when they’re making or adapting a piece of equipment, but there are those who definitely see it as an opportunity.
Chris: Earlier you said you had caught a landlord faking ghost things—can you maybe tell us more specifically what he was doing, and tell us of some other of your ghost-hunting adventures?
Haley: Yeah. So the case that I mentioned before, when I kind of had the lightbulb moment, the guy involved was the landlord of the pub. Ironically, the pub was called The Ghost Train, but I don’t think there were any ghosts there, especially after what happened. So we were called in—this is what was quite unique about it, was that we were called in. Back then—this is sort of like, 2005, 2006, I’m 18, 19 years old—and we get called in, and normally we call people to see if we can come in, you know. So we get called in by this guy because he’s convinced his pub is overrun with ghosts, there’s all this paranormal activity happening, his staff is scared, his customers are scared. And we agree to go in, and we’re like yeah, we’ll come and have a look, because we feel all like we’re the ghostbusters, basically. So we go down there, we get there, and you can—I think the moment we arrived, you could tell that something wasn’t quite right. Just the way people were acting, it was almost like they were in on a joke. But that’s in retrospect, looking back, I can say that—at the time, we didn’t really think anything was too amiss. So we started doing our investigation, we did like a big walk around the place. We had a psychic—we used to use a psychic—and he did his thing, and then we split off into smaller groups. One group would do one area, another group would work in a different area, and I wasn’t actually in the group that caught him; the group that I was with was very close to them, so I kind of caught the immediate aftermath of what happened. And the group had been…this pub had an outbuilding, which they used as a function room, and they had storage room in there as well. And the group had been in the function room, and they had heard what sounded like a mirror smashing in the storage room. They went in there to see if they could find the mirror that had been broken, and it had no light in there, there was no lightbulb, so they were using their torches, looking for maybe broken glass, or a broken mirror, or something like that. And they’re looking around, and one of the guys happened to turn to the door where another member of the team was standing, and as he turned to the door with his torch, his torch caught this figure sort of crouching behind the door. He screamed, obviously thinking it was a ghost—as you should, when you’re on a ghost hunt—but it was actually the landlord. What had happened was that the people in the pub had figured that the ghost hunters were in the function room, and the landlord had crept into the storage room, which was next door, and had thrown a glass across them, and then hidden behind the door in the hope that they would think it was a poltergeist or a [flying] ghost or something. But obviously, he got caught, but he only just got caught—if that person hadn’t turned when they turned, if they hadn’t been standing at that particular angle with their torch, we probably wouldn’t have known that he was there. So yeah, that kind of raised a lot of questions. But it’s hard to rationalize why somebody would do that. I think one of the members of the team actually went to talk to him whilst the rest of us were packing up to go—because we were like, yeah, we’re out of here, this is ridiculous—and from, if I remember correctly…it was a long time ago…I think he said something about wanting to be on “Most Haunted,” which is the television show that has here for, since 2002. He said something about Most Haunted, so we did wonder if he was trying to trick us into thinking he was haunted so we would then write about it, and then they could contact the show producers and say “we’ve got a haunted pub, look, these people came in and this is what happened to them, you should come and do a television show here.” I don’t know.
Francis: Were there any instances at all where you thought maybe something is going on here?
Hayley: Yeah, there have been lots, I mean, even as someone—I mean, I don’t believe in ghosts now. I do in a cultural sense, in…I believe that the cultures that we grow up in shape the way in which we interpret things, so I believe in ghosts in that sense, in that people genuinely think they’ve seen ghosts because of how they’ve been raised, with the folklore they’ve been raised with. Supernaturally, I don’t believe that there is anything, and I think when we die, we die, and that’s it. That being said, though, as a skeptic, as a nonbeliever who researches the paranormal, I mean it’s not that weird that I would experience weird things when I’m investigating them, because we know that they have a cause, we just established what the cause is. And if it’s a naturally occurring thing, then me going into the place that the weird thing happens in, means that I’m probably going to experience it. It’s just a case of trying to stay calm whilst experiencing it, so I can then try and work out what it is. That doesn’t always happen, and I have had the few occasions where I’ve wanted to just run away screaming. And I think the strangest things that I’ve experienced have always been those that—it’s not like a horror movie thing. So when something weird happens, it’s not necessarily terrifying, it’s just bit uncanny. And you don’t necessarily want to run screaming into the night, although sometimes that kind of flight-or-flight response does take over. One of the strangest things that I have experienced happened…there’s this mansion in Gloustershire called Woodchester Mansion. It dates back to the 1600s, I think—my history is not great—and it’s unfinished, so the stonemasons and the carpenters and everybody put down their tools and just left, and nobody really knows why. So you’ve got this half-finished mansion—it’s fully enclosed, but there are doorways that lead to three-story drops where there should be a floor but they never finished the floor. There are staircases that go to nowhere, all this sort of weird things. And we were in there—it’s a very spooky place, but nothing really happened. And then as we were leaving, I went to the bathroom very quickly on our way out—they don’t actually have toilets in the building, they got like a sort of port-a-cabin type thing like you get at festivals and so on, but quite a posh one—and so I went in there to go and use the bathroom in there, and as I’m in there on my own, something said my name from the other cubicle—there are two cubicles in the ladies’—and I’m in one cubicle, and something says my name from the next cubicle, or what sounds like my name, and I’m like that’s really funny, who’s there, like ha-ha-ha. And there’s nobody there. When I leave the cubicle, I look in—there’s nobody there, and when I go outside everybody is accounted for. Nobody had left the group, and…they’re all being serious, at least I believe they were being serious. And when we told people who had heard, asked the investigation to go ahead, they were like, yeah, that’s one of the things people experience. The weirdest thing happens in the most modern building on site, not the big spooky mansion, it’s in the porta-cabin everyone uses for a loo. So that was quite weird. And I think it was weird because afterwards—obviously I’m just replaying it over and over in my head, was that really my name being said? Was it just the plumbing? Was it, did I hear somebody outside and it sounded like they were inside? But I’ll never know…it was just a bit spooky. Another case we investigated took place over a number of years, it was a very long case. We would hear like a whistling noise—it would be as though somebody was whistling at us, and then when we moved to where they had whistled, the whistle would then come from somewhere else, but it was all very enclosed, so there was no way that there was anybody hiding. Yeah, just strange little things that you’ll probably never find an explanation for, it’s just a bit uncanny, really.
Francis: You know what I think? You know how there’s dark matter, and we just sort of like know it exists, but we don’t really have the technology or the senses to measure it or see it? I’m thinking there could be like, possibly, life forms that are the equivalent of that, or are like some kind of level of consciousness? I mean, I would leave room for the possibility that we don’t know everything that actually exists in this universe. But what I don’t think is that, if there was intelligent life that was sort of on this other plane that people call ghosts, right? Why would they just want to fuck with people?
Hayley: I think if I was a ghost, that’s exactly what I would do! I would kind of knock things over when your back was turned, and then you turn around and go “did that fall over? I’m not sure if that was like that before or not.” That kind of puts you on slight edge rather than just like, you know, chains and all that kind of stuff, like rattling chains and throwing the curtains from the windows…just the little things that make people think, “Oh my god, did that just happen?” I would totally do that. But yeah, there are different theories about what ghosts are.
Chris: …just paint “REDRUM” on the side of…on random walls, …
Hayley: Yeah, and instead they’re like “it’a a teenager, I think”…it’s, you know, a kid, it’s not a ghost. I was doing that thing where you make the cat just follow you around the room, like, with its eyes, and everyone’s just like cats just do that, it’s fine…I think. But yeah, when it comes to the paranormal, there are different theories, well, there are different hypotheses about what ghosts are. So one person might think that a ghost is a deceased person somehow still existing in spirit form, and another person might think that they’re an inter-dimensional being, another person might think that they’re a sort of elemental sort of nature-spirit…yeah, it kind of varies, and that can actually, it can make it quite difficult to counter arguments, because when it gets to the whole inter-dimensional elemental things, if you start questioning that people just accuse you of being a materialist, and how could a materialist ever understand? So yeah, sometimes it’s a bit of a…losing battle.
Francis: So one of the things that we like to talk about on this show is the future. And I’d be curious to hear…where do you think this world is headed right now, and how can maybe skepticism help to steer us in a better direction? Have you learned anything from ghost-hunting that relates to society in general, and maybe what some of our biases or superstitions are in terms of influencing our future?
Hayley: That’s a pretty deep question. Sort of yes…so, although I believe, personally, that when you die that’s it, I still find optimism in that, I still find meaning in that. So I refer it sort of being as like…nihilistic optimism, because it’s like “oh, there’s no point in life, isn’t it great.” And when it comes to people who believe in the paranormal, and belief in the paranormal, well, a lot of polls will tell you that more people believe in ghosts now than before. I don’t think that’s true. I think what’s actually happening is that people are more willing to talk about believing in ghosts than they were before, I think it’s seen as more acceptable. I also think at the moment the world can seem like a pretty scary place, you know, politically and so on, there’s just so much going on, there’s so much in the news that seems really bleak and really quite scary and terrifying. And I think that can make people turn to things like the paranormal and psychics and magic, so with Millennials, for example, of which I am one, more and more people are rejecting religion and they’re turning to things like crystal readings and tarot cards and so on because they find more comfort in it—which means, some of these things, they are relatively harmless. There are for people being harmed and sort of being taken for a ride by charlatans, so there is work that the skeptic movement can do to help people to understand how to sort of question things, how to look for evidence, what evidence actually is, what good data looks like, and so on. I can’t remember where I read it, something very briefly, very recently that showed, for example, that when it comes to the ant-vax movement, that it is possible to change the minds of people who believe that vaccinations are harmful, but it’s through kind of discourse rather than by belittling people. So I think that that kind of discussion-based activism and…rather than, you know, the looking down on people kind of approach that a lot of skeptics take, I think that is the way that the skeptic movement can make the future better, by recognizing that although we all believe in different things, there’s more that kind of unites us, more that we have in common with one another than we probably would necessarily think to begin with. And it’s through that kind of discourse and through the sharing of information rather than the pushing of opinions, that I think we can make the most change. What kind of happened with me when it came to my kind of own believing in ghosts to not believing in ghosts, that happened because the people that I was talking to didn’t tell me “you’re wrong, it’s because you’re stupid that you believe this” or “you’re an idiot, you’re wasting your time,” it’s because they kind of picked apart the arguments, but they did it from a sort of position because they wanted to help me see it for myself, rather than telling me what was best for me. And it worked, and I’ve then been able to go on and learn so much more about the way that humanity works and the mind works, and what makes people see ghosts, and the effect that grief can have on people and so on. And I generally do think that just talking to people, rather than talking at them, can make such a huge change.
Francis: One of the things that we struggle with in this country is, it’s been labeled as “post-truth” politics. It seems like no real recognition of what the real data is and what the false data is. And when you have people like Trump in there, even confounding that by calling “fake news” when it’s real news, it just makes it really difficult for people to know, I think, what the information is that they’re supposed to be evaluating. What would a skeptic say about that?
Hayley: I think it is a problem, and we’re not really taught these skills at school. There’s something called CampQuest which a friend of mine runs in Europe where young children—and I actually spoke at a CampQuest in England a number of years ago—and it’s basically like summer camp, but for kids who are interested in science and so on, and it teaches critical thinking skills. And I think critical thinking skills are so important, not just because, oh, Bigfoot’s not real and aliens haven’t visited this planet, but because that kind of skillset helps you in every aspect of your life. I think the skills that I’ve learned, as someone who became involved in the skeptic movement, has definitely helped me in my career, in my day to day life, in my health, and so on. And I think it’s such a shame that we’re not taught these skills from a young age. That said, when you see—especially in the UK at the moment, with this whole Brexit thing that we have going on—you see people kind of just spouting the same misinformation because it’s fed to them in a way that appeals to them. So our biases are against us, in a way—and yeah, unless you have those critical thinking skills, it’s really difficult to spot that happening. It is a real shame.
Francis: Yeah, I think we have a real problem with lack of good journalism. Like a lot of independent journalism, maybe? “Cause there was a time when you had all these different sources, and you could kind of figure out for yourself which of them is more accurate, you know, get a bigger picture by combining, that sort of thing, but it’s almost like we have these, like, this one voice that gets distributed through all these different mainstream media news sources and news companies…and it’s, I think, a huge issue that we lost that.
Hayley: Yeah. And you see the same kind of patterns where people will accuse certain news outlets of being biased, when that actually might not be the case, when you take a step back and look at the claims they’re making, or the coverage they’re giving, it’s quite balanced, you know. I think one of the problems we have here in the UK at the moment is—and I think this is the result of, that the 24-hour streaming television news cycle and so on—over here, you find a lot of the extremist politicians are given a lot of air time because they make themselves readily available to fill the time slots that producers have to fill. And so you find that you get their opinions being given equal footing as maybe a well-researched, well-rounded politician who knows what they’re talking about. And you get that a lot in politics, so we’ve got a lot of kind of Brexit debates happening here at the moment in the UK, but you also see it elsewhere. So you’ll have television shows who will cover things like the measles problem that we have, where people are not getting vaccinated, so measles is starting to spread again, and they’ll maybe interview a doctor, an then they’ll interview someone who’s anti-vaccination who isn’t a medical professional, but gives them the soundbites and the airtime coverage that they need. And these people are given equal footing, and therefore the viewing public, whom, if they don’t know any better, will think that those two opinions are worth the same, and then they’ll just pick the one that fits their own biases rather than the program maybe challenging the misinformation they have in their heart—it gives it sort of an airing, as though it’s equally balanced, and I think that’s a huge problem.
Francis: Do you think that a society that works in competition, like with say, free market capitalism, is as robust and desirable as a society where people are more like thinking we’re all in this together, and work together for common causes?
Hayley: It’s difficult to know for sure, because I don’t think…I would love society to kind of think that way, where you can all kind of work together, but I think the divides within society are just so, there are just such wide divides in society that that would never happen. But I do think people, when they work together, you know, major things can be achieved. But in an ideal world, perhaps that would happen, but we don’t live in an ideal world, do we?
Chris: But I do see, both with grassroots—not just in skepticism, but I see a lot of positive forward motion going on right now among small groups who are seeming, you know, to have some great effect, and that’s what makes me optimistic.
Hayley: I mean, politically in the UK we recently had the Independent Group, who are a bunch of politicians who have split away from their main parties. Some people see that as an optimistic move, rather than being tied to their party line, these politicians haven a stand, which is encouraging. And we do have voices emerging in the politisphere, like Jess Phillips for example who is a Labor MP. She’s received a lot of online abuse, but she’s taking a stand, and you see a lot of people supporting that. And I think in that respect, the tide is turning. I think that has some parallels with the skeptic movement, actually, especially in the US. The US skeptic movement there has been a huge issue with women being harassed and abused and assaulted even. But what you find is that the skeptic movement, when it came to that stuff, I think, were ahead of the curve on those problems. I mean, now we have things like the MeToo movement and so on, the Womens’ Marches happening—but the skeptic movement was ahead of the curve on that and were calling it out before it became like a mainstream thing, which is kind of encouraging, I think. I think there’s definitely cause for celebration, I think there are people who have been kind of put down and put upon a lot, minority groups and so on, who are standing up and being counted and being heard. And I think that’s great, and I’m always in support of those sorts of grassroots movements, definitely. And of course in the US Skepchick have just re-launched their blog, which is great news.
Chris: I was wondering what Rebecca was up to lately.
Hayley: Yeah, they just re-launched, which is fantastic, I think.
Chris: You’ve been on a couple of podcasts in the past, of your own. You had Righteous Indignation, and you were Marsh’s parter at the beginning of Be Reasonable—which by the way has become one of my favorite podcasts, because it makes yell every time I listen to it…
Hayley: [laugh] It used to make me yell when we recorded it, let alone listening to it. I’ve got a podcast at the moment that has been going since about…I think 2015, actually, called the Spooktator podcast. And it’s more paranormal themed than the Righteous Indignation podcast or Be Reasonable were, although those podcasts both did touch upon paranormal themed stories and interviews and so on. The Spooktator I co-host with my friend Paul Gannon and another chap called Charley Revel-Smith. It’s a monthly podcast, though we are looking at releasing more on a more regular basis if we’re able to. But we basically examine weird things in the news, but also things that are happening culturally and socially, and movies and so on, all that have a paranormal theme to them. We also look a lot at folklore and how it kind of influences modern media and so on. And so for example, in the last episode, we spoke about the Ohio Frog Man, and how some people think it’s linked to some recent sightings of the Kentucky Goblins—which sounds, to anyone who’s not interested in the paranormal, just sounds completely ridiculous. From a cultural aspect, it’s quite interesting, and when you pick apart these stories you start to understand why people believe things in the way that they do, and where these claims come from and how they spread. And so, yeah, we produce the Spooktator—we’re basically just three people who are giant paranormal nerds who have an interest in these things and we found there are lots of other paranormal nerds out there who like listening. So it’s really cool.
Francis: So how is your interest in the paranormal evolved? Like, you had your original, genuine curiosity about its veracity, I guess…but as time’s gone on, what’s kept you interested?
Hayley: So at the moment, I’m studying toward a psychology degree. So I’m really, I found I’ve gained more of an interest in how people think and why they think that way. So over the years—obviously, originally I believed in ghosts, so I was interested in ghosts and ghost evidence and so on, and then I lost that belief. So I sort of became more interested in maybe—not necessarily debunking, I don’t really like the word “debunking”—investigating and solving mysteries. And kind of pointing out when somebody was hoaxing something, that kind of thing. I still do that to an extent now, but now I’m more interested in what causes people to think they’re haunted, but I’m also interested in the people at the center of these cases, because you normally find that the things people report as paranormal activity have some sort of either a physical health, or a psychological health, or a social theme underpinning them. There are usually other causes that are making people interpret things like that. I’m also interested in how belief can influence people, and also experiences of bereavement and grief and so on. Yeah, so I…kind of more interested in, probably, the people than the ghosts, but I am still fascinated in the idea of ghosts and so on and why people—even though we can demonstrate how it’s not necessarily possible for them to exist, how people are still fascinated and still believe in them.
Chris: But I always find UFO stories interesting, because I’ve spent a lifetime reading science fiction which has aliens in them, even though the evidence for actual aliens visiting our planet is nonexistent. There’s always part of me that hopes, you know, SETI finds something on its radio or what have you.
Hayley: Yes. And I think the sort of thing that I find really interesting is how, when it comes to the, when you ask people what a ghost is for example, they might say something like, a headless horseman. But actually when you look statistically at the records, there have been very few headless horsemen reported over the years, and I find it really interesting the sort of characteristics of ghosts that survive, but for no real good reason. I think it’s really fascinating how we carry these ideas, and also the way in which, for example, traditionally in England you would have had your haunted crossroads, which is where people who had taken their own lives would have been buried. And so you would have the haunted crossroads, but now we don’t really have haunted crossroads anymore; instead, we have sort of roads traffic-accident hotspot ghosts instead.So you would have seen ghosts kind of lingering on the side of the road near the crossroads before, but now you see them where people have passed away in car accidents. And so the evolution of ghosts is also quite cool to look at, and the way in which ghosts emerge after tragedies as well. So after the 2011 Tsunami in Japan, there was this almost unpredictable, really, there was this flurry of sightings and reportings from taxi drivers who said they kept getting people getting into their taxis and asking to be taken to, like, a town that had been devastated, just completely wiped out in the tsunami, and halfway on the journey they’d look back and the person who’d gotten into their taxi would not be there anymore. But they would carry on the journey to the place, and they would out and they would open the back door of the car so that the ghost, in their mind, the ghost could then get out and complete their journey. And I found that really, really interesting, the way that that kind of story evolved. I think for as long as humanity—and when you look back, we kind of see these cycles—for as long as humanity survives, ghosts will survive. When times are tough, and when life is harder on people, ghosts tend to flourish and people tend to rely on them, trying to get through the bad times. And I think that kind of makes ghosts a little bit cool, really, I don’t know. But I am a little bit biased.
Francis: Well there’s kind of a myth to it, you know. It serves a purpose that’s similar to way myth works in societies. What’s interesting to me too is that it almost seems like there’s less interest when you’re talking about ghosts and whether it corresponds to, like, Christian ideas of good and evil, and that kind of dualism where…say, for example, with exorcism, it’s an evil spirit that’s taking over a person, but with a ghost it seems more neutral or something.
Hayley: I think it depends on the person that becomes involved in the case. So we do have a problem in paranormal research communities with people who are sort of these self-styled demonologists and self-styled exorcists. In America, for example, Lorraine Warren just passed away…
Francis: She’s the Amityville woman?
Hayley: Yeah, that is what she was best known for. And Annabelle, the haunted doll, those sorts of cases. But they did a lot of cases, and the common theme through most of their cases, if not all of them, was that the devil did it, so any of the hauntings they came across, it was demons and devils, and you needed the church, you needed to pray, and with their doing exorcism. And that kind of stuff is really dangerous, because nine times out of ten—well, actually that’s a statistic I’ve just made up. But more often than not, when it comes to these cases, there are underlying causes, and these have to be considered first. You have to consider, are the family recently bereaved? Because that is a huge trigger for these things. Is there an underlying mental health condition? Is there an underlying physical health condition? Is there a social issue there? You know, you have to think about the social-cultural experiences that the person’s going through. Are they living in poverty? That can affect the way in which they interpret things. But a lot of people don’t consider these things, and a lot of skeptics don’t consider when they then start tackling the people as being deluded or stupid. And it’s just not the way to solve these cases.
Francis: Is there a particular psychological predisposition to believing in ghosts that you’ve been noticing?
Hayley: I just think that confirmation biases play a huge role when it comes to these things. Whether that is…I mean, I’ve spoken a lot about the bereaved, or whether it’s because you’re in a house that’s said to be haunted. There are so many ways in which you can convince yourself that something’s going on, and then you start to see evidence of it where there is no evidence. And, you know, seeing meaning where there is no meaning, whether that’s in audio or perhaps in photos or video—so many photos have been sent to me over the years where it’s literally people just seeing things in the pixels of their photos, their badly lit photos—to the more traditional sort of spiritualist methods of tipping tables and doing ouija boards or dousing and so on, all of these things rely on our sort of predisposition to find meaning when there is none. And I think the most important that a person can learn about this, not only that you do that, not only that see things where there are not things to be seen, but even when you know that you do it, you still do it. So you can be a nonbeliever who knows how a ouija board works, you can then take part in a ouija board sitting, and it can still work and still feel really [?], even though you know how it’s working, and it’s because you sort of had this illusion of how in control you are of what you’re experiencing, but actually, when it comes down to it, we are sort of not as in control as we would like to expect. And I can remember doing a QED con one year, actually, I remember doing a glass divination session with some skeptics in the bar of the hotel that the conference was in, and they thought it was quite funny ‘cause the hotel was said to be haunted. And they were like, “oh Hayley, show us how we can talk to the ghost!” So we took a glass, an empty glass, we turned it upside down, got our fingers on it and I started doing the old ghost hunting thing of like, “is there anybody there? Make the glass move, show us that you’re here”—and then it moved. And everyone round the table crapped themselves almost, because they just hadn’t expected this glass to move at all. So even though they knew it was unconscious muscular movement that was doing it, it still happened, and produced this really uncanny experience for them. So even when you know how it works, it still happens.
Francis: Oh, so is that the basis for ouija boards?
Hayley: Yes, it is. And anything, basically, that you need to touch, whether it’s table-tipping, ouija boards, glass divination, or dousing crystals or dousing rods, anything like that that you need to touch, you are moving it, whether you mean to or not, you’re probably moving it.
Francis: I’ve never been able to get a ouija board to work. Someone gave me one as a present, and I tried to give it back, ‘cause I couldn’t get it working, and they wouldn’t take it back.
Hayley: [laughter] Yeah, I mean it doesn’t work all the time, especially if you’re really hyper-aware of it, you can…so it’s unconscious muscular movement, which means that you don’t, you’re not doing it on purpose. But when you become super-aware of how much pressure you’re putting onto the planchette, you can actually stop doing it. So one of the things that I used to encourage ghost hunters to do, when I used to talk at paranormal conferences, I used to say to them, when you’re doing your ouija boards, take some putty or some play-dough type stuff, put it on top of the glass, and if you’re pushing it your finger will imprint into it. And actually just by putting the putty on top of the glass, they became super-aware of how much pressure they were putting on it, which meant they put no pressure on it, and it didn’t move. When you kind of start putting those controls in place, it just falls apart completely. But then, that just makes me a party-pooper.
Francis: When I think about my friends and the experiences that I’ve had with people over the years, the one paranormal thing that comes up a lot that people really seem to believe in, are these mediums who can kind of, either talk to the dead, or even a pet, like there are some pet mediums—is that what they’re called, mediums?
Hayley: Yeah, mediums or psychics..
Francis: …psychics, yeah. I mean, there are people who swear on this. You know, “this woman, she like, somehow she knew I had this blue shirt when I was 12”…I’m wondering, what is behind that? Why is it that this seems to be so prevelant?
Hayley: It’s really fascinating, and yeah, some of them can be really, really accurate and quite scarily accurate actually. I once sat with a psychic who just out of nowhere pulled out the name “Mandy”—and I’ve got an aunt Mandy, and it’s not a super-common name over here. And I was just like, whoa, that’s really creepy. But actually then somebody pointed out to me that when you think about it, you probably know someone called Mandy—if not Mandy then Amanda—it’s kind of about chance. And there are, the most two common ways that psychics can trick you—this is the thing I need to point out as well. When we talk about “psychics,” it’s really important to understand that there are some people out there who say that they’re psychics, or say that they’re mediums, who genuinely believe that they are. And actually it’s probably that they’re just very perceptive people, and we…cause we all have the ability to read people. Like when you walk into a room, when you’re talking to someone, if they’re shuffling around the way they’re standing, the way they’re talking, the inflection of their voice; that kind of thing, the clothes they’re wearing—you instantly make judgements about them. They might not be correct judgements, but you instantly start picking up on things about them. And some people are just very good at it, and then think that their perception is “extra-sensory” when actually it’s not. But when you then go to the other end of the scale, where you have people who claim to be psychic but are not psychic, one of the tricks that they use is called “cold reading”—it’s where you say things which seem really personal but actually they’re quite vague. So things like you used to have a blue shirt that you used to wear a lot, or you had a grandmother that’s passed away, or you’ve got a bruise on your knee or you sometimes get sore knees, or you had a dog when you were young who was like the best family dog you ever had—things like that, that actually, when you are at a psychic show, seems really personal to that person, their reading, but there are probably ten people in the room that that could apply to. On the flip side of that, you have “hot reading,”which is when they know information about you because they’ve researched you. And we…
Chris: …that article in the New York Times that Susan Gerbic wrote, where they caught one of these stage psychics actually using Facebook and looking up stuff about the people they were talking to.
Hayley: Yeah, exactly. I was gonna say, we share so much information online without necessarily realizing we’re doing it. I’ve got a friend called Ash who does this show, “How to Be a Psychic Con Man,” where he literally stands in front of an audience of skeptics and convinces them that he has psychic powers by doing all of these psychic readings, and actually they’re really, really specific readings. And I remember going to one of his shows, and I sat in the audience next to the guy called Andy, and I looked over his shoulder and I saw his name, I saw he was on Facebook, I saw his name, I went out the back to where Ash was getting ready and I sat down. We went onto Facebook, we found this guy’s profile, and we found all of this information despite neither of us being his friend. And then Ash basically memorized that information, went on stage, and then part way through the show, just started doing this reading on this guy, and the stuff that he was saying was so specific that even though this chap in the audience was non-believer, he was physically shocked that Ash was picking up all this information about him. And I had been privy to that, and actually even though it was then revealed to him how it had been done, I felt really uncomfortable that we had done it, you know. But it was all in, you know, part of the bigger lesson basically. But yeah, there is so much information about you out there that you probably don’t realize. And you find that a lot of people who go to psychic shows will go to their local spiritualist churches, and some of the psychics will then go along to those spiritualist churches, or people that work for them will go along for a couple of weeks, and they’ll listen in to what people are saying, what readings are being said and so on. And then they’ll pick up on that information, and they’ll use it in their show. And historically in the US, obviously, is the now-infamous case of James Randi versus Peter Popoff, where James Randi exposed the psychic Peter Popoff as using an earpiece, and his wife was feeding him information about audience members. You can’t always trust what people are saying—they might think that they’re psychic, and they’re just very perceptive; they might just be feeding you information that seems really specific but it isn’t. So if you are having a psychic reading, one of the best things you can do is record it, and then listen back to it and see how many of the statements were right, because we’re also really good…we’ll remember all the hits, but we’ll forget the times when they said something that doesn’t make any sense to us. So listen back to it, count how many times they say something that doesn’t make sense, and then ask yourself if the things that do make sense could make sense to other people as well. And actually you’ll probably find most of it does.
Francis: Do you think that there are nascent human capabilities that get misconstrued as paranormal? Like say for example, things like intuition or I guess maybe telekinesis…just things that, who knows that maybe we could evolve someday into having some new capacity? Is there any sense of that in the paranormal?
Hayley: I’m not sure, to be honest. I mean, people do think that, as paranormal beliefs. When it comes to things like telekinesis, I’m quite skeptical. When it comes what may…
Chris: …and a lot of this has been studied, formally. The United States…
Hayley: It has.
Chris …government funded a lot of this study, the Soviet government funded a lot of these studies, and they came out with the null hypothesis in all cases.
Hayley: And there is a field of research called parapsychology, which continues to study ESP and PSI and so on, to see if these things possibly exist. Some people argue that the evidence is there, but actually, again—this goes back to what we were saying before about being able to critically analyze data, and the way in which data is captured—and when you look at the sort of tests that have been done over the years, so the [zena] tests for example, and other such cases, you find that the protocols in place might not have been as stringent or as controlled as they should have been, which may have allowed kind of positive data to creep in that wasn’t actually positive data, it wasn’t, you know, kind of proving the hypothesis at all in the way that they had predicted it would. But there is a lot of debate, and actually when it comes to this sort of topic, it gets quite heated. For example I’ve blogged previously about parapsychology and caused huge arguments, and had a lot of abuse sent my way, because there are so many people who are just absolutely sure that humans have these powers, and it can get quite ugly when you start to question those claims.
Francis: It would seem easy to demonstrate, if you could do that…reproducibly…you know, there wouldn’t be any argument. I think humans, though, they do crave magic. I mean, look at how popular Harry Potter is.
Hayley: Yeah, exactly. And I don’t think that will ever go away, I think people will always have paranormal beliefs and magical beliefs. As I said before, millennials are kind of less religious than the previous generations and more interested in the magical and in witchcraft and so on. And I think that will always be the case, so you do get skeptics out there who just seem so affronted by the idea that anyone could believe in anything that isn’t scientific, but that’s just reality. Well, it’s their version of reality, but them having that version of reality is reality, people are always going to have these beliefs. And it’s really easy, I think, to kind of get caught up in the whole idea of how it can harm people, or it’s really harmful to believe that because you could get ripped off, and yes there is harm to be done through these beliefs. But ultimately, that’s not going to stop people believing in the things that they think are real. So I think taking it personally is, I think, just a very easy way of getting frustrated all the time. And in the skeptic movements, you do see a lot of people who do get frustrated and it’s just pointless.
Francis: I think a good point that it’s in some ways a big distraction, because if people are suffering, if we need change, looking to magic to make it happen, you know that’s definitely, probably not the most effective direction to be going in.
Hayley: Sure, no exactly. However, there has been research—it was a while ago now—but there was research done that showed that people who had lost a husband or a wife, that the majority of the people involved in the research, they were kind of interviewed at stages following their bereavement, and within the first ten years after the death of their spouse, the majority of them reported that they had experienced the ghost of their dead husband or wife, and that it had comforted them and it had helped them through their bereavement. So although believing that their husband or wife’s ghost is in the house could have opened them up to harm, you know, they could have been preyed upon by a psychic or whatever, ultimately it helped them come to terms with the tragedy they had gone through. And I think there are definitely positive aspects to be taken from that, so I don’t think it’s necessarily black or white when it comes to whether magical thinking and paranormal beliefs are a good or a bad thing.
Chris: Well, with that said, we’ll ask you the same question we ask all our guests at the end, and that’s—-is there anything that you’d like to promote or publicize or pimp?
Hayley: The only thing that I would like to share is my blog: it’s hayleyisaghost.co.uk. I post there as often as I can, and it is just things that occur to me, things that I find interesting, my takes on weird paranormal things.
Chris: And we should remind everyone you’re not the new Congressman….
Hayley: No, I’m not that Hayley Stevens, I’m the other Hayley Stevens. And there’s an equestrian called Hayley Stevens, and then t here’s me, the ghost hunter.
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 email@example.com. 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.