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  • Martin Schmalzried

The Poietic generator vs. Pixel wars : co-creating in the physical reality


In 1986, Olivier Auber came up with the idea of the Poietic generator. This idea took the form of a game, played on a 2 dimentional pixel grid, where players could each control the color of a single pixel. For instance, imagine a canvas which is a 10 pixels by 10 pixels square, or 100 pixels in total. 100 players could connect via the Internet and each player would be asigned one pixel, being able to change its color. From such a configuration, images and forms would spontaneously start emerging in a balanced and symetrical co-creative process. No one could be coerced or forced to change the color of their pixel, and thus if they participated in the co-creative process, they would cooperate willingly.



This is in stark opposition to the « pixel war » experience initially launched by Reddit in 2017, and repeated in 2022. In this experiment, a huge canvas was put at the disposal of all Reddit users, who could choose to change the color of any pixel and would have to wait between 5 to 20 minutes before changing the color of another pixel. The main difference with the Poietic generator, was that in such a configuration, users could actually erase someone else’s creation. And so during these experiments, humans would coalesce and organize to « colonize » various spaces on that huge canvas, and « defend » these spaces and their creation from an outside « attack ».



These two very different ways for humans to co-create starting from a blank digital canvas are very good proxies to understand how humans co-create in their physical reality. For the longest time, humans have been creating using a « pixel war » approach in our physical reality, where early tribes would defend their territory from other competing tribes, in order to claim the right to leave their mark on the land and protect their creation from others. Then humans created States, or a form of impersonal entity, which protects the creation of a human collective from outside threats. Humans also came up with paradigms such as religions or various ideologies, which sought to colonize human consciousnesses in order to ensure that all humans who adhered to one or the other paradigm would form a kind of « guild » to create in a similar way, by building cathedrals or mosques in the case of religions, or particle accelerators in the case of science, or building cheese factories, wineries and bakeries in case you belonged to the French culture as opposed to hamburgers and Coca-Cola factories if you belonged to the American culture. This entire planet has been subject to a « pixel war », with humans creating States, armies, borders and treaties, to protect their collective creations from the attempted assault of a group of other humans who did not share their world view, paradigm, religion, language or culture.


Today, it is more important than ever that we transcend this antiquated way of co-creating, and that we learn from the key wisdom contained in the idea of the Poietic generator, in order for humanity to engage in co-creative processes which respect individual integrity, without the need for creating Leviathans such as States or colonizing human thought to homogenize and control human co-creative processes. The Poietic generator’s most powerful message, is to leave a fear based creative approach, and transition to one which relies on trust, unconditional love and individual sovereignty. Instead of using all kinds of mechanisms to protect yourself from the fear of being invaded by others in your creative space, as in the pixel war system, you create a system where each individual has equal power and control over the creative process and space, in an unalienable way. The Poietic generator carries a form of human right which can be expressed as the unalienable right for each human to create in a designated space, in equal proportions to any other human.

More and more projects in the Web3 space are bringing decentralized governance to physical spaces, for instance, by acquiring land, and using DAOs (decentralized autonomous organisations) to collectively manage these physical spaces. However, such tools may fall prey to abuses which have emerged in our present centralized governance and democratic decision making tools : the tyranny of the majority (where 51% of any given community impose their decisions on the 49%) or the tyranny of technocrats, oligarchs or elites which make all decisions based on a variety of criteria (being the « smartest » and therefore, deserving more power, or being the « richest », therefore controlling more votes, etc). It is never easy to find the kind of balance where every individual’s views are equally accounted for, and even in such a case, some people may naturally be less active in governance, which naturally leads to a situation where whatever gets created on a collectively managed piece of land will be the reflection of the most active people in a community’s governance and decision-making bodies.


But what if we brought in the key insight of the Poietic generator and apply it to our physical reality ?


Here is how this would work in practice :


1) A DAO collectively buys a piece of land, which it wants to convert into a « collective stewardship » model (see my whitepaper or plenty of Web3 projects such as cohere.network or joinseeds.earth), putting such a piece of land at the disposition of the local community either living on the piece of land or living in the surrounding area.


2) The DAO then leverages the Web-of-Trust protocol to propagate the membership of the DAO to the larger community living on or near the piece of land (see my article on the Web-of-Trust). In short, the DAO creates 5 initial members who can issue 100 certifications each. Every new member has to receive 1 certification from 5 different members to join the network and would thereafter be able to issue 100 certifications to other aspiring members. Such a system can quickly propagate and onboard new members without having to « vet » each individual member via a centralized identity verification process.


3) After a certain period of time, or once the membership count has stabilized (for instance, if a DAO grows in the first month then stabilizes at around 2000 members), then an algorithm would automatically calculate the available surface area of the piece of land, owned by the DAO, on which humans of a community will be able to co-create, and divide the surface area by the number of members. Each member would thus « control », symbolically speaking, a certain surface area of the land, in an unalienable way. For instance, if a piece of land has 2000 square meters which are « available » to co-create on (available to build a permaculture farm, a children’s playground or a parking lot), then if the membership of the DAO reaches 2000 members, each member controls 1 square meter.


4) For any initiative to be built on that land, the community would need to gather support from as many members of the DAO as the surface area of their project requires. For instance, if someone has an idea to build a children’s play ground which would cover 300 m2, then he or she would need the support of 299 other members for the project to be even considered for a vote by the community.


5) Once a person’s vote is locked into a project, he or she can no longer « spend » that 1 square meter on another project. This forces people to be strategic and only support projects which they truly believe in. The only way to regain your 1 m2 is if the project that you allotted your « pixel » to was destroyed (for instance, if the children’s playground was demolished and the land was restored to its initial state).


6) Such a system would prevent a small but active minority (for better or for worse) from deciding what to build on the entire piece of land. If a certain portion of humans in the community do not wish to allocate their « pixel » of land to any specific project, then that piece of land would forever remain wild or free from any human creation or alteration.

Some may view this as a « waste ». If someone doesn’t do anything with a piece of land, then it should be taken by force and used for productive purposes. But this is an old way of thinking. As a matter of fact, leaving certain areas of our planet as natural « wastelands » is essential for maintaining ecosystems, biodiversity, and many more reasons. All of nature should not be treated as something which should absolutely be transformed into a human creation. On a side note, children also thrive and develop better if they grow up in places where they can experiment in a wild and free environment, as opposed to an orderly and secure sandbox. Children’s playgrounds are great, of course, but they restrict children’s creativity and imagination by providing rigid structures within which children should play. Being able to play in a naturally grown wood or pasture, and play freely with no predetermined structure designed by an adult is a vital part for developing one’s imagination and creativity.


Another added advantage of such a system is to ensure that each person’s vote really counts and steering clear of the tyranny of the majority danger, since the 51% could only build on 51% of the total land surface area. This system ensures that each person’s voice and priority is respected in equal proportions. Nobody can « force » another person to change the color of their « pixel », or to take over control over your allotted piece of land and build something on it without your consent. It creates the right conditions for people to engage willingly in co-creative experiences on an equal footing.


There are, of course, many issues to be ironed out. For instance, such a system would create incentives for limiting the propagation of the network via the Web-of-Trust to avoid dilution of a community’s « creative power ». For instance, a community living on the land would refuse to open up the network via the Web-of-Trust protocol (refuse to certify people from a neighboring town for instance), in order to keep the control over the land to themselves. Or, on the contrary, it could create an incentive for spreading the network in order to dilute the power of a group inside the community which is viewed as a « rival ». For instance, in a community which is divided between people of different culture or religion, one part of the community may seek to expand the network via the Web-of-Trust protocol to dilute the power of the rival community by growing their membership, which would naturally/mathematically dilute the control over a portion of the land that the rival community controls (similar to shrinking the average size of the pixel on the canvas that you control). There could also be people who would want to push their project through as quickly as possible to « lock in » their control over a portion of the land before the network expands too much or dilutes their control over a piece of land. Furthermore, the poietic generator does not solve the problem of localisation. While in the online version, every person is randomly assigned a pixel to work with, in physical reality, people would most probably be attributed a non-localized portion of land. And on any piece of land, there are parts which may be more appealing than others. For instance, some parts of a land may be in a spot which is prone to flooding, or have a poor exposure to the sun, or the quality of the soil is lower etc. There could therefore be an incentive to rush the implementation of a project to « lock in » and secure control over the most appealing piece of land. One solution to this problem is to create a sense-making and consensus building mechanism for such a project which would garner the support of the entire community, on top of collecting the necessary land space vote (support from people equivalent to the space it will occupy on the land).


Nevertheless, using the Poietic generator principle as a foundation for a collaborative co-creation in our physical reality could completely transform the way we co-create in the material world, moving away from the current power dynamics and competition, to a much more serene and cooperative approach. When humans know they cannot be coerced into surrendering their vote or their power, they can finally engage willingly into a collaborative process, leaving aside all of their strategies aiming at defending oneself or attacking another to gain more influence and pull the co-creation blanket to oneself. Such a system could be integrated into the governance mechanisms of any DAO, to ensure a balanced representation of each and every stakeholder inside the DAO, without forsaking the importance of experts or the natural emergence of thought leaders. Some people may gain more influence within a DAO for valid reasons (holding key expertise, being more involved and proactive), but such people would still need to secure the vote, the « pixel » or the « plot of land » of a portion of the community in order to move forward with their proposal. This may lead to situations where, if only 30% of the community is willing to allocate their piece of land, then only 30% of the total surface area of any given land could be co-created upon, but this should not be viewed as a failure or a problem. Just like representative democracies fail to recognize a blank vote, communities should learn to respect the unwillingness of members of the community to surrender their « pixel » not as an attempt at sabotage, but rather as a sign that the « right » idea has not emerged yet, in order for them to change the color of their « pixel ». This would be in stark opposition of our current representative democracies which ignore a blank vote and simply automatically extend the sovereignty of the winning party to impose its « ideas » on the people who voted blank, left with no representation whatsoever and no recognition of their sovereignty as individuals, even though by voting blank, they have clearly expressed that none of the « ideas » or political parties on the « menu » are to their liking.

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