Can Monasteries Be a Model for Reclaiming Tech Culture for Good?
Christian monasticism began in earnest in the fourth century CE, just after Constantine made Jesus Christ the official god of Rome. No longer persecuted, believers who craved a holiness less compromised by empire fled to the desert and set up communes. These monastics came to wield power in their own right, putting on display a more strenuous, radical faith. Their successors became Europe’s chief scholars and inventors and also served as guardians for the technology of writing.
Early this year, the ancient caves of Matera, Italy, became home to an experiment: an unMonastery, the first of its kind. For the dozen or so unMonks living there, plus the hundreds following their progress online, it carried the quixotic hope of an underemployed generation regaining control of the technology that increasingly commodifies and surveils their lives. Monasteries ushered civilization through the Dark Ages; perhaps unMonasteries, sparing the dogma and self-flagellation, can keep alive the promise of a liberating Internet as companies like Google and Facebook tighten their grip.
The unMonastery’s gestation began in 2011, the year of Occupy and the Indignados, a time of so many ambitious undertakings with ambivalent outcomes. The Council of Europe’s ominous-sounding Social Cohesion Research and Early Warning Division sought, in the words of its chief, “to have a better idea of the extent of insecurity in society.” The international body sponsored the invention of Edgeryders, “an open and distributed think tank” of people working through an online social network and a series of conferences. Anyone could join, but those who did ended up being mostly young, tech-savvy and entrepreneurial, and mostly from Western Europe. What united them was not a political ideology, but the dead-end conditions of austerity and the hope of figuring out better ways forward. They produced a report about the economic crisis—a “Guide to the Future.” Soon the council’s funding ended, but Edgeryders pressed on as an online network with more than 2,000 members and an incorporated entity. The group presents itself as a company in the business of “open consulting.”
At the end of its first conference in Strasbourg in June of 2012, a small circle of Edgeryders, with glasses of wine in their hands and under the shadow of a church, dreamed up the unMonastery. The idea was this: find a place with unmet needs and unused space to lend a building to a group of young hackers. Live together cheaply, building open-source infrastructure for the commons. Repeat until it becomes a network.
The unMonastery vision went viral in the Edgeryders community. It fit into a widely felt longing at the time, evident in many parts of Europe and North America where protest had broken out in 2011, to start figuring out practical alternatives to the failed order. Occupy activists were learning to set up worker co-ops, and their counterparts in Spain laid plans for Internet-driven political parties. This was the period, too, of Edward Snowden’s leaks, of Aaron Swartz’s suicide, of blockades against techie commuter buses in San Francisco. Google became one of the world’s leading lobbyists, and Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post. Tech could no longer claim to be a post-political insurgency; it had become the empire.
As tech achieves its Constantinian apotheosis, old religious tropes seem to offer a return to lost purity, a desert in which to flee, the stark opposite of Silicon Valley. A bonneted “Amish Futurist” began appearing at tech conferences, asking the luminaries about ultimate meaning, as if she came from a world without the Internet. Ariana Huffington cashed in with her mobile app, GPS for the Soul.
For a year and a half, the unMonastery idea developed and grew. Edgeryders brought their favorite conceptual vocabularies to bear: social innovation, network analysis, open source. They brought their experience with hacker spaces, maker spaces and co-working. The “monastery” in their meme also steered them into the generally foreign vocabulary of religion. Alberto Cottica, an Italian open-data advocate and leading Edgeryder, perused The Rule of St. Benedict, the sixth-century text that governs most of Western monasticism. He discovered Benedict to be a network-savvy, evidence-based social innovator.
“Each monastery is a sovereign institution, with no hierarchy among them,” Cottica explained. “The Rule acts as a communication protocol across monasteries.” He compared Benedict to Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, and Linus Torvalds, creator of the open-source operating system Linux. “The rule was—still is—good, solid, open-source software.”
In Brussels, Cottica met Ilaria D’Auria, who was working on Matera’s bid to be declared a European Capital of Culture by the EU in 2019. The bid proposal centered around the theme of “ancient futures”—“in order,” it said, “to give voice to forgotten places, areas often pushed to the outskirts of modernity, yet which remain the bearers of deep values that remain essential.” The proposal talked about Old World ingenuity alongside open data, sharing and crowd-sourcing. The committee in charge of the bid came to recognize the unMonastery concept, with its supporters throughout the continent, as a useful addition to Matera’s portfolio. The city agreed to provide a building, as well as 35,000 euros for travel and expenses for four months, February through May 2014.
In late October of 2013, some 100 Edgeryders converged on Matera for the group’s third conference—this time focused on making the unMonastery a reality. They let themselves get lost in the city’s half-empty, half-touristy mazes. They talked with locals about their needs and winnowed them down to twelve “challenges,” ranging from alternative energy to a lack of intergenerational spaces. Yet the welcome they found in town was uneasy. Materani may have been cooperating and improvising to survive for millennia, but they weren’t used to calling it “social innovation” or “hacking.” It didn’t help that only a few Edgeryders could speak Italian.
“This is all quite new for what happens culturally in Matera,” said D’Auria. She heard locals wondering, “Why should we have people coming from outside to solve our problems?”
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