This is an ongoing collection of longer form thoughts on the design and philosophy behind the Coalescent Computer.

Blog < Recalibrating

@jakintosh | November 7, 2023

Lately, I've been really shaking up my perception of what the Coalescent Computer is. I was down in the weeds for so long building this virtual machine and programming language, with only the notion that the beautiful idea would make it all worth it. But as that process has played out, I began to see how big of a project it was, and how mostly I was just reinventing wheels. I needed to revisit my strategy.

And so this is how I came to terms with the fact that I had no strategy at all! I was just building this thing based on a hunch, and along the way I was ignoring a dozen other problems that were real, interesting, and in need of a solution. I could argue that this project has been a net negative due to all of the attention it has taken away from more worthy causes.

But, back to the strategy: what did I need a strategy for? What was my actual goal? When I started thinking about the Coalescent Computer two years (!) ago, I was coming at it from an economic perspective. I saw that the world needed more cooperation and more efficiency, and that a primary enabler of capitalist competition was the way our information systems enabled information silos and enclosure. "If only we had a openly standardized and interoperable data and computation platform that could not be enclosed over by large corporations, then we would finally be free to subvert Capitalism and build a better world!"

But as I got more in the weeds, I lost sight of this initial spark, and became more focused on proving to myself that I could actually "rebuild the internet" from scratch. This is I think the core of my personal struggle on the project, in that it became less about what I was doing or what problem it would solve, and more of an exercise to prove to myself that I was as smart as I hoped others might see me. Ironically, this is exactly the kind of thing someone does when they're not as smart as they seem. This is a teaching moment, though, and I'm doing my best to learn from it.

Coming back up for air these past few weeks has also been disorienting for another reason: I've found that my core economic worldview that shaped the project has shifted since I started. In the time since I started this project in the Fall of 2021, I've spent a considerable amount of time working at a non-profit, starting (and building) a grassroots advocacy organization, learning about the deep intracacies of urban housing policy, and starting, building, and managing an Art Cooperative with a physical commercial space (with a lease, rent, and everything). My black-and-white socialist/communist lens of a beautiful future where everybody just has everything they need has been molded by two years of working through non-profit disfunction, leader-less advocacy spaces, the power of markets in the housing sector, and the difficulties of coordination in cooperative spaces. Not that these things have been a failure! Many of them have been very successful (sans the non-profit job), but the experience of going through this process has taught me a lot about how much work goes into making these things succeed.

Where I've landed economically is something like this: people need small economic spaces with a lot of personal agency and an environment with reasonable guardrails but permission to experiment. I no longer believe that a new economy will be a top-down cybernetic algorithmically-planned world of abundance, but a decentralized system of small autonomous economic actors who can properly communicate about resource availability. I acknowledge that this can very easily be read as a stock neoliberal pro-business and pro-deregulation stance, but I think there's a lot more nuance than that, and a lot of my thoughts stem from my work on analyzing the history of housing policy failure. To be specific, it's that big top-down structures tend to throw out emergent cultural knowledge, and end up making problems much worse in the long run: see how restrictive residential zoning in English-speaking countries has been pretty much a complete failure across the board, destroying the natural character and functions of our cities, making housing unaffordable or inaccessible to many, and being a major cause for social isolation and carbon emissions.

What I still see as a key unmet need is an improvement in our information systems that allow these small autonomous actors to coordinate on larger scale goals. Markets are an emergent structure, not a God that has our best interests at heart. However, to build a progressive and just transitional economy, we need to acknowledge that markets are *real*, just like climate change is *real*, and then work towards building coordination systems for small groups of people to solve large problems. We don't have to "believe in the invisible hand" of the market, but we can use and respect markets as an economic tool for information signals. I also still believe that open information is critical, and that cooperative economic structures will be better suited to that environment, but I'm no longer focused on killing for-profit businesses as quickly as possible. Sudden shocks to a complex system will generally do more harm than good.

On top of all of this, I've just found through personal experience that good data hygiene, strong conceptual separation, and helpful information layout is not a technology problem but a people problem. There are plenty of tools that we can use to better share information today. We don't need to reinvent the internet to use less energy and improve information access, we just need to teach people why and how to change habits and behaviors.

And so... where does this leave something like the Coalescent Computer? A single, standardized method for data representation and computation is no longer the kind of approach that matches what I'm trying to enable. Instead, perhaps the Coalescent Computer is more of an approach, or a philosophy, of how to interact with and program computers. It's not an app, it's a mindset. Interoperable data might not be about some self-describing schema format in a content-hashed database, but about teaching people how small, well-documented, purpose-built data systems make it easy for people in the future to understand and use the data *if they need to*. It's about teaching people to not reinvent the wheel if they don't have to. This same approach goes for network topology, and code too.

So for now, perhaps I will just take these principles that I've learned throughout this journey and try to make some small solution to one of the real problems I've been ignoring, especially the problems that will help make my decentralized advocacy groups stronger, or my art cooperative more effective. There are real tools that can help make a difference in the small, mission driven economic spaces I currently occupy, and that should be my focus. I'll stop waiting until I have a fully functional custom assembly language and operating system, and just build things that "coalesce" within the systems that exist, for the people that are here, that solve the problems that we have now.