WTF's The Future‽ Part I

On the 27th of March 2004, the WTF open space conference was held in Leytonstone, London. The WTF purported itself to be comprised of "various grassroots projects, people, and organisations", and this is one observer's view of the event and its background.

Author: Sean B. Palmer; Date: 2004-03

Prologue: Before There Was WTF, There Was The Plex...

The ubiquitous Tav, who much like Cher and Madonna only effectively has a single name now, had been planning this conference for months. My association with him stretches back to the turn of the millennium, when one memorable night on IRC provided me and Aaron Swartz with a memorable blueprint of the Tav's envisioned future. The "plex" as it was called then and is called now was a concept very difficult to grasp at first, but it panned out to be the smoothie that you'd make if you dumped HTTP, public key based identities, and peer to peer software in a blender (with some vodka for kick) and pushed the "blend" button or whatever those things have. I don't own one myself.

Aaron took Tav's plan and filtered it through some of his own visions for the future, and came up with a project called Semplesh. Or possibly Plesh—we never did define it, but the two projects essentially coexisted until the personality clash of Aaron and Tav drove both projects into the murky depths of the bitter fork.

My involvement in all of this is that I wanted to use the end product. Aaron and Tav's views of what they were doing were substantially different, in retrospect, but what they appeared to be aiming for at the time was a system much like Freenet but coded in a sensible mix of Python and C, using the latest Chord-like P2P systems, and actually working. Minus the buzzwords, that means that it'd enable you to share content much like you can on the Web using an HTTP server, but everyone would bear the load. It would mean not having to pay for an HTTP server. It'd mean not having to worry about your server going down. It'd mean being able to anonymously publish information over the internet. In short, it'd be the result of taking something that's already pretty cool and adding lots of other goodies.

But then, for a couple of years, not a lot happened.

#Esp, Espianity, and Documentation

The resurgence came in early 2004. Tav popped up on IRC again, and this time he had grand plans for the immediate future—including a set of conferences—and a new set of friends to help him with his goals. These friends are what Tav calls the "espians". The first question that almost everybody has is "what does ESP stand for?" Tav, of course, never replies. In fact, it doesn't seem to stand for anything, and I believe this is a ploy on Tav's part to make sure that there are no connotations between ESP and anything else. He did once mention that ESP was a mild reference to Extra-Sensory Perception, but given that these are generally social and technical change embrued folk, it's distant enough a connotation to pull off the neutrality.

I had to decide how I was going to approach this group of people. I knew Tav from the original Plex discussions, and I counted him as a friend, but like all people with radical ideas there was bound to be a problem in identifying myself with ESP: I would lose objectivity, and moreover I wasn't aware of just what ESP is. To some extent, I'm still not. I decided, therefore, to observe as a friend of the project, and I continue that relationship now.

It turned out that the ESP sub-culture was sufficiently interesting to take up a significant portion of my time in online discussions, and now I feel like I have to document—however poorly—what's been going on. Mainly because no one else is doing it.


So it came to pass that Tav scheduled the first meeting for 27th of March, which turned out to be a rather cold and dreary Saturday. I arrived at the 491 gallery in Leytonstone after an uneventful journey, and quickly found my way to a sofa to recover from the journey. Tav was roughly 20 yards away from me, but it was too much of a bother to walk over to him and introduce myself, so I rang him on his mobile and got him to come to me instead.

Roughly 90 people attended the WTF during the course of the day and the night, extending as it did to dawn the next morning. I expected three other people that I knew to turn up, Libby Miller and Dan Brickley (think FOAF), and Daniel Biddle. The two Dans didn't turn up, but Libby did, much to my relief. When she arrived, roughly an hour after I did, the sessions had already been arranged. I had been scribing some of the event first on a laptop borrowed from Charles Goodier (aka. mediovia) whose network connection had actually crumbled, and then on Tav's laptop which he had actually borrowed from someone else since his own laptop had melted earlier.

The sessions were very informal. The people were very informal too: small groups of individuals chatting about broadband to my left, guys with loud shirts walking about seeing to various technical equipment, Claire—one of Tav's close female acquaintances—hopping about between the food stand and the door, and Tav himself flitting 'twixt sessions making sure that everyone was okay.

Everyone was indeed okay, as far as I could tell, but the conference itself was not structured. People were free to organize group sessions as they wanted to, and to attend sessions as they wanted to or not. Since I had been scribing and Libby had arrived late, we took it upon ourselves to opt out of the current round of sessions and instead record the snoring dog that was sitting on one of the leather sofas to the side of the conference room. Another smaller dog, whose name I later found out to be Jack, waltzed in from outside leading to much ass-sniffing, running in circles, and eventually running outside. Thankfully, the next round of sessions started soon thereafter, and Libby and I joined in the Kendra Initiative talk.

Kendra and the Semantic Web

The Kendra talk was being conducted by Daniel Harris, whose acquaintance I'd had the pleasure of making roughly a week previously on IRC. Neither of us recognized one another until this point even though we'd bumped into one another numerous times. When Daniel Biddle came onto IRC to say that he'd missed his coach, I'd asked Daniel Harris whether underground trains would be running the next day, which turned out to be the first thing that I said to him. Funny how that works. There are also far too many Dans in the technology sector.

Daniel Harris's talk consisted of powerpoint slides, verbiage, and a live online demonstration of the code so far. The point of Kendra is something that I'd been missing until this talk, and was mainly that Kendra is a system to hook up content and consumers. The code manifestation of this was currently a wiki with an RDF backend. The Powerpoint section explained the grand vision via clipart of a guy tearing his hair out at his inability to download content, and the demonstation section explained roughly the involvement of RDF.

The crowd—which consisted of roughly ten people assembled in a semi-circle, some on chairs but most standing—were generally insightful leading Daniel to exclaim "hold that thought, hold that thought!" on a number of occasions, and the presence of Libby (and me) helped to iron out some of the Semantic Web oriented details of the project. Licensing issues were also raised, but the flavour of this talk as with much of the entire WTF was to get many disparate people interested in one another's projects; the conversation was generally a lot less technical than one would expect from such projects as a result, allowing me to concentrate on the sub-culture, the cake, and the dogs.

Tav's Espian Vision Talk

On IRC in the weeks leading up to the conference, Tav had been promising that he would deliver a broad overview of Espianity. And, to his credit and my partial astonishment, he assembled everyone in the main hall for his keynote on just that topic. Given that I was sans laptop at that point, I scribbled the proceedings down hastily on several pieces of paper.

ESP, Tav explained, is a collective that tries to ensure that people's basic needs are met. When Tav was six, he lived in India, and politicians were coming to where he lived and bringing sacks of grain and provisions for the people saying that if they were voted into power, this is what they would strive to provide for people. And so the people voted for them, and this model of working left its impression on young Tav; he was shocked. Tav continued to drive this point home by saying "your right to vote means fuck all—er, pardon me—is a joke if your child is starving". He said that twice.

The next point that he moved onto was that everyone should devote two years of their lives to working together for the common good: one year in late teens, and one year in mid-life with more experience, e.g. as a doctor or a teacher. He produced what is possibly his favourite quote, from Ghandi, who said "be the light that you want to see in the world". No theories, Tav wants to go ahead and do it all now.

He was concerned with information overload too, saying that although the internet allows us to communicate effectively, and people are forming groups such as wikipedia and recyclopedia (the latter of which deserves a story all of its own), "none of these have solved the problem of overload".

Then we got to the initial steps of Esp, and the early days of the Plex. Tav mentioned "Espra", which was his Freenode based first attempt at making code for the Plex, but concluded that "Freenet was kinda the wrong technology to back". The Plex is to be a new network based around people's individual views of content. As an example, he noted that everyone who attended the WTF on that day did so because they knew someone who had recommended it. It's that kind of trust network that he wants to model on the Plex. Someone asked about the specific kinds of trust metrics afterwards, prompting him to slip into a dense piece on the attack-resistentiality of his trust metric, and which was in delightful contrast to his unspecific and meandering main talk, which was nevertheless appropriate for the eclectic crowd.

He mentioned the six degrees of separation principle, and was questioned on the matter and had to explain that it meant that everybody knows everybody else on the planet through a path of six acquaintances or less. In summary, he said that "trust is fundamental".

The next portion of the talk concentrated on shailas, which Tav had been explaining to me a handful of times on IRC. My own term for them is "cross contextual summaries" which I think captures the point better in plain English, but Tav—reminding me of Ted Nelson and the like—is rather enamoured with his terms (compare "Espia", "Plex", "Shailas" to "Xanadu", "Zig Zag", and "Tumblers"). The purpose of a shaila is to capture many aspects of an event, "forked across many contexts" as he likes to say, and mark them up for language, range of opinion, level of complexity, and so forth. The example that he used as to where a shaila would be useful is in explaining cryptography to someone: the material would have to vary according to your audience. Tav seemed unaware of the Learning Objects phenomenon (though he won't be if he reads this article all the way through), which is a very similar area of research. The goal of both is to make it possible to reuse the best forms of content, and to enable discrete and personalised searches depending on your own particular needs.

The Plex is to be integrated with BitTorrent, which was the obvious peer to peer aspect of it, and Tav ended up describing the Plex as a "universal database of sorts". He talked about Lego, and how one would build application blocks on top of the Plex. Someone in the audience clearly didn't understand this, as they asked Tav whether the Plex would be a website, a piece of code, or what. Tav tried to rexplain, and maybe got his point across a little better.

The Toman Model was perhaps the least well-explained part of Tav's talk, and was put across as being an effective method of open organization. The explanation started out as focussing on how organization starts with a seed group, the people who come together to form a projects (its founders), and moved onto the dynamic characteristics of groups that change over time based upon their ecological footprints. Someone in the audience asked what an ecological footprint meant (or tav asked how many people knew), and he went on to explain that it's the impact of a person in hectares of land. Continuing on organizational metrics, he espoused non-hierarchial forms of organization, saying that Espia would allow everyone to be able to create a task and back it effectively. He talked about liquid-democracies as an emerging area that could benefit from his model, given that it's a non-heirarchial structure.

Grounding this in a clear example, Tav pointed out that often people like to build roads across fields, and other people would rather retain the field thank-you-very-much. Whose decision is it? Often, a local referendum will take place, and the local people will get to vote, or will at least lobby their local MP one way or another to represent them in parliment. But as he pointed out, who really knows all of the issues behind these things? What wildlife will be destroyed? What will be the ecological ramifications? What will happen to commerce in the town that's being bypassed? What will happen with respect to noise levels? Who will benefit, and who will miss out? Most people simply don't know, and many MPs, in Tav's view, simply don't care. A liquid-democracy will enable one to "mix-match": you can find people to represent you on each issue, or even represent yourself if no one else is standing up for your point of view effectively enough.

In summary, he said that the Toman Model enables effective decision making processes.

Trying to drive it home ("sorry if I'm rambling here", Tav was saying a number of times by now), he explained that one of the aims of Espia is to enhance culture. "Lots of people are into technology, but technology is not the solution!" Over ten years of blogging is a long time, and we're focussing too much on technology when what we were really built for is "to run, to dance, to frolic".

"True power comes from us all and culture, and so many different things can be done. We're conducting a war on ignorance. We're just a small handful of people people, and most people don't even know about this stuff. I was out at a rally, and I was walking by all these people didn't know that there were two million people elsewhere in the streets of London... it's like: what's going on? Pedipeace is one idea."


For the next meeting, the WTF 2, Tav wants to collect nearly a thousand people together in the streets of London for the Pedipeace movement. He's written about it in a couple of essays, which explain the concept far better than I could.

I've tried to make sure that I stay as independent an observer as possible in these proceedings whilst remaining close enough to the action to really understand it. Of course I have opinions about it all, but I hope that they haven't intefered with my diligent notetaking. In fact, as I've stated oftentimes before, the culture surrounding all of these events is perhaps more interesting to me than the events themselves.

The House Next Door

After Tav's keynote, I managed to say a few more words to Matt Biddulph of the BBC and a fellow part-time FOAF hacker, who'd come along independently of our telling him about it, though Libby had been intending to tell him and couldn't find him around. He got a FOAF shirt from Libby as did I (thanks, Libby!), and Libby took our photo so that we could be codepicted (it's a FOAF thing). For some reason, we got herded out of the 491 Gallery at that point, and into the rather quirky building next door. But I joined Libby and the Kendra developers in the garden out the back, and played Daniel's guitar whilst they were discussing... well, I'm not sure what they were discussing since I was too busy being amused that someone else actually uses DADGAD tuning with enough regularity for me to stumble across it. I played roughly ten seconds of "She Moves Through The Fair/White Summer" before the cold told me that it was not the best song to choose under the circumstances.

The house next door, the Vertigo building, smelled of chai tea and dog. Jack was lying down on a chair next to me, and I took a photo of him and of the rooms that I was between. I chatted to Daniel for a while, and asked him who owned the house: he explained that it was broadly an artists' squat style house, and we debated the semantics of that for a few minutes before moving to other topics. The extreme eclecticism of the people, the architecture, the furniture, and the ideas and events was almost as overwhelming as the cold, but a few two-bar heaters managed to dispell some of that.

Some films were shown, including one about an intelligent squatter who was featured on a talk show and ironically thanked Mrs. Thatcher's government for relaxing laws against squatters, which provoked a laugh and cheer from the crowd assembled in the Vertigo building. I was standing outside the main room, with Libby working away on her laptop, and a few other people coming and going. Another part of the film had some good double-bass in it.

Daniel indicated that he'd like to talk about licensing, and so one of the other Kendra developers and I sat in the front of the Vertigo house which was almost as cold as outside, but had nice ambient lighting (flourescent tubes with some coloured film haphazardly stuck on them, in other words) to compensate. The Kendra developer actually turned out to be "Britain's number one PKI developer", and the head of the Spiky Black Cat Music record label. I didn't catch his name. He showed Libby some music video using her laptop whilst I had a very interesting conversation with a Canadian inventor who's now probably the only person I know to have released his engineering patents under a liberal license. He's trying to create a wiki for people to collaborate on engineering and architectural design patterns. Tav had introduced me to him as the "Solaroof Guy", and Tav I and knew him as he had found the WTF wiki just a few days earlier.

Libby had to leave, and I decided to go with her.

The Conclusion: WTF's WTF?

One of the last things that I asked Tav was how he thought it had gone. "Great!" was his response. "Really?" was mine. "Sure, why wouldn't it be?" "You seem a little hesitant." "[shrug] It could've been organized a little better." Tav's voice was a little strained by now. The conference, judging by the feedback of just about everyone whose thoughts I've managed to gather on the subject, was a resounding success: everybody enjoyed it and learned a lot. But Tav's a perfectionist, and I'm sure he envisioned many different things for the event. I know that I did, but what actually transpired didn't let me down notwithstanding the two Dans not showing up, the general lack of cake (I did have quite a bit, though), and the cold.

Tav's one of those crazy dreamer types, but he showed here that he has enough ambition to gather a group of nearly a hundred interesting people together under the pretense of collaborting, communcating, and sharing knowledge on topics that we'd otherwise be less apposite for exposing ourselves to. When you're standing next to someone and they're keen on telling you about their ideas, you can't help but absorb it. I'm a pragmatic, and I like rough consensuses and running code, and whilst Tav manages often to get the former but not the latter, there's still enough potential in the whole espian movement to keep me interested, and the espians are certainly enough of my friends to make it a pleasure to know them.

I'd like to thank Libby for coming along, for keeping me company, and for the t-shirt; Charles Goodier for having lurked on Swhack for so long, lending me his laptop numerous times, and giving me the wonderful wonderful wikipedia.txt; Mamading Ceesay and Daniel Harris for being nice interesting folk to chat to; and everyone else who made the conference a success. And of course, to Tav, for just being Tav.

Sean B. Palmer