Can Monasteries Be a Model for Reclaiming Tech Culture for Good?
The vast complex of cave dwellings in matera—the Sassi—is said to have been inhabited for 9,000 years. Staggered terraces of masonry facades line ragged cliffs that fall into canyons. After World War II, the Sassi became the country’s most notorious slum, and the government emptied residents into modern apartments on the plateau above. For decades the ancient caves lay empty. Pasolini and Mel Gibson both filmed movies about Jesus there. In the 1990s, a band of cultured squatters began to move back in and renovate, leading the way for a tourist industry in an otherwise sleepy city. UNESCO declared the caves a World Heritage Site; the sides of Matera’s police cars now boast Cittá dei Sassi. Most of Matera’s 60,000 residents, however, live not in a romantic past but in a present where it’s not altogether clear what they have to offer in the global economy. Decent work is hard to find, and the city is hemorrhaging its youth.
Visible from what became the unMonastery’s patio, down one cliff and up another, are dark abscesses in the rock, their interiors still bearing remnants of paintings from past use as churches and hermitages. Where Matera’s monks and nuns had hours of structured prayer each day, the unMonastery had documentation—the basic act of piety in any open-source project. Before an algorithm can be copied, tweaked and adapted, it must be radically transparent. Monks expose themselves to God through prayer; unMonks publish their activities on the Internet.
The presiding unAbbot was Ben Vickers, 27 years old, with patches of gray on either side of his well-trimmed hair and a hooded black coat worn over his banded-collar black shirt. While also more or less retaining his post as “curator of digital” for London’s Serpentine Galleries, Vickers was the unMonastery’s chief theorist and coordinator; the others generally praised his ability to digest and summarize their various points of view, and to document them on the online platforms they use to communicate. He blasted George Michael while setting up breakfast and found a certain glee in the prospect of failure—a turn of mind probably honed during his days in doomed anarchist squats. But documentation can trump even failure; others can study the attempt, tweak it and try again.
Some of the documentation looked outward. Maria Juliana Byck, an Occupy Wall Street veteran and videographer, was working on a project to map common resources in town, to help Materani connect with each other and collaborate. There was an “unTransit” app in the works for local timetables and workshops on the gospel of open data. Also under way were an open-source solar tracker, an open-source wind turbine, and coding classes for adults and kids in the unMonastery caves.
As in real monasteries, though, much of the unMonastery’s piety went toward scrutinizing the minutiae of daily life. Elf Pavlik, a 31-year-old web developer with pony-tailed hair, had been living for five years without touching money or government IDs. With nearly pure reason, he implored the others to document more and more precisely what came and went, from food to tampons, so they’d learn to budget not by cost but in terms of the resources themselves. Using a software package called Open Energy Monitor, they kept track of the unMonastery’s electricity usage minute by minute, room by room.
Keeping track of the longer view was the job of Bembo Davies, a Canadian-turned-Norwegian widower and grandfather, a veteran of the circus and the stage who updated his WordPress chronicle in august prose. Accompanying material evidence—skeletal floor plans, a mannequin’s headless torso—came from an artist who once helped rewrite the official history in her native Hungary. They talked about the unMonastery, even in its first months, as at the beginning of a 200-year history. It didn’t seem like so much time to ask for in a place that has been around for thousands.
This rhetoric had the ring of dot-com bombast, but mixed with a slower, more resilient kind of vision. The unMonastery sat on more precipices than one—an emissary of the hubristic tech culture it represented, but also a patient attempt at redemption. While planning ahead for centuries, the unMonks practiced the one-step-at-a-time philosophy of Agile software development; if breakfast wasn’t on the table on time, or when they worried about whether they’d done any good for Matera whatsoever, they reminded each other, “Everything’s a prototype.”
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On a windy day in May, gusts swelled through the unMonastery’s first-floor caves, blowing from the walls various colored sticky notes and hand-drawn posters that looked like they’d been made in meetings heady with excitement and hope. They were schedules, sets of principles, slogans to remember, lists of things to do. A maxim for the Edgeryders’ doctrine of do-ocracy, for instance: “Who does the work calls the shots.” These relics remained on the floor for hours, apparently provoking insufficient motivation to pick them up.
In the early weeks, there had been a kind of monastic routine at the unMonastery. At specified times, the group would sit in circles to share feelings and discuss concerns. A flying drone had once captured footage of the theatrical morning exercises that Bembo Davies orchestrated. But by May, the circles and the exercises were on indefinite hiatus.
After the 7 am wake-up bell rang half an hour late one morning, Davies groaned, on the way to the shower in his underwear: “We’re sliding into a prehistoric condition.” He lamented on his blog that people had been reverting back to talking about the laptops they’d brought as “mine.” Benedict’s Rule, after all, has harsh words for private property: “This vice especially is to be cut out of the monastery by the roots.”
Building a new society in the shell of the old can seem so impossibly hard. Capitalism, meanwhile, makes organizing ourselves look easy by paying us to pretend that’s what we’re doing. Maybe the longing for leaderless swarms in the protests of 2011 partly stemmed from the image of a team at a software conglomerate, or a noncommercial, open-source project nonetheless parasitic on its corporate sponsors. But the kind of democracy and community we glean from tech culture lacks a deep structure, a core; tech culture is particularly good at disguising the reality that its core has become investor returns and Wall Street IPOs. The CEO’s absolute authority dresses up like charisma. Rapt in admiration, we the people are being de-skilled out of actual self-organizing. A few months in, the unMonastery’s communications had become a jungle of platforms, many of them proprietary, with few clear lines between inward and outward: the public Edgeryders website, public Trello boards, a closed Google Group and public folders full of Google Docs. The “ideologically coded” unMonastery website that Elf Pavlik had designed was badly out-of-date and difficult to use, so a Facebook page had become the main means of sharing information with the world. Before, one unMonk had always refused to use Facebook on principle; it was only after coming to this supposedly open-source hacker monastery that he felt compelled to start an account. The unMonastery’s vision of an open-source way of life seemed at risk of becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of the status quo.
Back and forth, they debated what the real problem was: the loss of ritual? The lack of ties with people in Matera? Too much software, or not enough? Alberto Cottica warned from afar over the Edgeryders’ platform about fixating on technology rather than on actual social interactions. They disagreed about the rules that governed them, as well as whether there were any in the first place. Losing patience in a tendentious meeting, Rita Orlando, one of the unMonastery’s Materan allies, begged, “Let’s try to think like a company, even though we are not a company—please!”
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