UTOPOLY – playing as a tool to reimagine our future: an interview with Neil Farnan

When Charlotte Webb asked me to write a piece about the future of work for Furtherfield, I immediately thought about Utopoly. Even though this game doesn’t directly discuss how we will be employed or occupied in the future, it creates a rare space where people can re-imagine a different society in which values, forms of exchange and social relations are reconsidered and reconfigured.

To better understand the ethos behind Utopoly, I interviewed Neil Farnan, who is currently undertaking a PhD at University of the Arts London with the research title ‘Art, Utopia and Economics’. He became an Utopoly advocate, introducing many ideas and concepts featured in its current iteration. Neil’s interest in designing a utopian version of Monopoly was initially shaped by his previous studies in User Interface Design, where he developed an interest in Scandinavian design practice and Future Workshops.

Francesca Baglietto: What is Utopoly? More specifically, how does it relate to and differ from Elizabeth Magie’s original version of Monopoly?

Neil Farnan: Utopoly is both a tool for utopian practice and a fun game. It draws on Robert Jungk’s Future Workshop methodology to re-engage people’s imagination and ideas for a better society and incorporates the results into a ‘hack’ of Monopoly.

Elizabeth Magie’s original game (1904) was intended to show how landlords accumulate wealth and impoverish society. Players could choose either a winner takes all scenario or one where wealth was distributed evenly via a land tax. Magie also hoped that children’s sense of fairness meant they would choose the latter and apply these ideas in adulthood. But the Monopoly we have today normalises and celebrates competitive land grabbing and rentier behaviour and Magie was airbrushed out of history and replaced with a more acceptable mythology of the American Dream.

Whilst Magie’s game informed players about the current situation, Utopoly gives people the opportunity to imagine and incorporate values and attributes they would want in a more utopian world. Players are able to determine the properties, the chance and community cards and even rules of the game. The rules being determined by the players means the game is a work-in-progress, however some features that work well can get adopted and carried through to the next iteration.

Tweet by Neil Cummings about Utopoly

FB: As you just said, Utopoly doesn’t have a definitive form and rules but changes with each interaction. So, while the future of Utopoly is still in progress, what I would like to know is who started the project and how has this evolved so far?

NF: Critical Practice, a research cluster at Chelsea College of Arts, played a central role. We were concurrently developing both Utopoly and an event #TransActing – A Market of Values, and the current version of Utopoly is a synergy of aspects of these two projects. The first ‘hack’ of Monopoly occurred at Utopographies, co-organised by Critical Practice (28th – 29th March 2014), where the elements of the game were redesigned to incorporate utopian values. Inspired, we decided to continue developing the ideas and a second ‘hack’ took place (December 2014). Some of the ideas and values that emerged from this iteration fed into and were represented in the design of the currencies used for #TransActing. A further opportunity presented itself for another ‘hack’ within the research event ‘What Happens to Us’ at Wimbledon College of Art. This iteration was hosted by Neil Cummings and I was invited to include the currencies developed for #TransActing. It was here that Utopoly as a ‘method’ began to emerge, a method for collectively producing possible futures. I have since convened a number of iterations using a large laminated board to facilitate design adaptations and ease of play.

Additionally, researchers from the international ValueModels project (modelling evaluative communities utilising blockchain technology) recently visited Chelsea – we played Utopoly and they loved the method. They have since been inspired to use Utopoly in their research, and I’m excited to receive their feedback on how their version develops.


FB: Utopoly is experimenting with possible new monetary ecosystems in which multiple currencies and values might be exchanged. How might these currencies work and what are they inspired by?

NF: The currencies developed for #TransActing generated the concept of an ecosystem of value exchange and these are used in Utopoly. I have since come across the work of economist Bernard Lietaer, who highlights the problems of mono-currency economies and advocates for a monetary ecosystem using multiple currencies. With their origins in subjugation and taxation, mono-currencies are tools for value extraction. They also contribute to cycles of boom and bust, resulting in the withdrawal of money from the economy and the prevention of economic activity. Historical evidence suggests that economies operating multiple currencies are more resilient – they work in a counter cyclical manner compensating for this withdrawal and allow the economy to keep working.

The irony of Monopoly is that the winner is ultimately left in control of a non-functioning economy. A more preferable state would be to have a healthy flow of values in balance where people are able to exchange their contributions in a mutually beneficial way. A feature of Utopoly is that players no longer seek to own all the property but work together for the common good. The currencies are used to bring privately held properties back into the commons. The economist Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel prize for debunking the myth of the “tragedy of the commons” (Ostrom, 2015) demonstrating the benefits and effective use of common resources. Utopoly also allows economies of gifting and sharing.

I am currently working on ways of modelling innovations such as the blockchain and associated digital currencies.

FB: How would you interpret “work” in this utopian economy? For example, do you think the relation between paid work and unpaid work and/or people’s dependence on employment might be shaped in an ecosystem in which assets/values are brought into the commons to generate value/wealth for all?

Whilst not directly about work, Utopoly reflects the future nature of wealth and values in a Utopian economy. It touches on the current abstract separation of paid work from non-paid work and people’s employment dependency.

In Magie’s original game the players collect wages as they pass ‘Go’. They then buy properties and accumulate wealth extracted from other players. On one corner of Magie’s game is the Georgist statement “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages”, reminding us that land ownership should not provide unearned income.

As an economy develops people become less self-sufficient and more dependent on employment to meet their needs and a mono-currency makes the separation of paid and unpaid work even starker. The social contract that existed from 1950-70s where employers had a responsibility to their employees is disappearing. Outsourcing, short term and zero-hours contracts make the future of paid work increasingly precarious, and we also face further threats from automation and artificial intelligence.

Economist Mariana Mazzucato (2011) documents the substantial contribution of public investment to the success of today’s businesses. These businesses stand not so much ‘on the shoulders of giants’ but on the shoulders of a multitude of diverse contributions from society at large. A new social contract is needed to take this into account.

Fintech companies make much of the term ‘disintermediation’, but we also need a new form of ‘intermediation’ where contributions are reconnected and recognised. An ecosystem of currencies which register currently unpaid valuable activities together with a basic income could meet this need. This approach is suggested in Utopoly where people collaborate to contribute values and are valued for their contributions. The properties are brought into the commons to generate value and wealth for all.

Utopoly board

FB: Playing seems to provide a very rare space in which, by operating in an interstice between reality and fantasy (what the psychoanalyst Winnicott called a transitional space), it is still possible for the players to imagine alternatives to our current economic system. Would you agree that the main political purpose of Utopoly is to provide such a space in order to reopen the capacity to be imaginative about economic and societal organisations?

NF: This is the utopian aspect of Utopoly, using people’s imagination as a means of prefiguring the future. We endure in a society where the mainstream orthodoxy would like us to accept that ‘there is no alternative’. One of the last great taboos is money and the associated economic system. If you consider our mono-currency as a societal tool imposed from the top down, it shapes and informs how we behave and the values we are expected to live by. In a way, it is like DNA; if we can change the DNA of our economy we could create new exchanges, values and social relations. We have become so used to this abstract construct that it is the water we swim in and the box we need to think out of. In order for people to start thinking that another world is possible we need to open up a space for imagination to play out. Art, games and play are some of the few remaining arenas available to engage in speculation about the future. Utopoly fulfils many research functions including acting as a tool for inquiry and reflexion, and a means of modelling future possibilities. It is rare for people to have the opportunity to criticise the existing state of society and work out how to reshape it. By allowing people the space to consider different approaches we can start to encourage better societal norms of exchange and interaction and construct new social contracts.

Bibliography

Greenbaum, J.M., Kyng, M., 1991. Design at work: cooperative design of computer systems. L. Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, N.J.

Jungk, R., Müllert, N.,

Institute for Social Inventions, 1987. Future workshops: how to create desirable futures. Institute for Social Inventions, London.

Lietaer, B.A., 2012. The future of money: a new way to create wealth, work, and a wiser world. Random House Business, London.

Mazzucato, M., 2011. The entrepreneurial state. Demos, London.

Ostrom, E., 2015. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

 


(Conceptual) Art, Cryptocurrency and Beyond

[Notes:

1. These are the minimally reformatted and slightly expanded notes for what would have been  a 15-minute presentation.

2. The presentation was meant to be followed by questions and form part of the introduction to a panel discussion. Any questions in the comments here or on netbehaviour gratefully received.]

Art and Money

greek drachma, 600BC

Art and money have always been involved in each other’s production. This is a Greek Drachma from 600BC with a relief depiction of a sea turtle on one side. For many people this would be the artwork, or at least the image, that they saw most frequently in their everyday lives.

damien hirst, for the love of god, 2007

In the present day, high art and high finance (or big art and big finance) go hand in hand. Blue chip artworks produced by brand name artists like Jeff Koons are collected by hedge fund managers and oil oligarchs as investments and as signifiers of socioeconomic position (while stolen Old Master paintings are used as signifiers of value in transactions between criminal gangs…). This tendency reaches its logical conclusion for now with Damien Hirst’s “For The Love of God” (2007), a diamond-encrusted platinum cast of an actual human skull complete with the original teeth. It was sold for fifty million pounds sterling.

nanex, h.f.t. visualization, 2010

Looking inside the sale of “For The Love Of God” makes its narrative less straightforward. It was sold to a group including the artist and their dealer, making the actual figure and its ownership less straightforward than a simple sale would suggest. Nanex’s High Frequency Trading visualizations from 2010 look inside transcations in electronic stocks & shares markets, finding aesthetic forms in the activity of share trading bots. What the sawtooth waves of this bot’s activity represent is unknown: a glitch, a strategy, a side-effect. But without making these forms visible, we would not be able to ask these questions or reflect on this economic activity.

Art, Particularly Conceptual Art, Critiques This Relationship

cildo meireles, insertions into ideological circuits 2, 1970

It is part of the value of art, particularly Conceptual Art, that it can afford us these opportunities for reflection and critique. Cildo Meireles’ “Insertions Into Ideological Circuits 2” (1970) overwrites the contemporary equivalent of the Drachma’s turtle with a rubber stamped message on a banknote, intruding into everyday use and circulation of currency in order to give its audience a pause for critical reflection.

lynn hershman, check, 1974

Lynn Hershman’s “Check” (1974) is signed by their artistic alter ego Roberta Breitmore, using financial transactions and their attendant contracts as a producer and guarantor of identity, literally underwriting it.

douglas huebler, variable piece no. 44, 1971

Douglas Huebler’s “Variable Piece no.44” (1971) incorporates an image of its current owner into itself each year for its first decade, in an analogue precedent for Bruce Sterling’s idea of “spimes”. When the artwork is sold a new owner appears, making the artwork’s contingent economics its aesthetic subject.

sol lewitt, certificates, 1980

The initial critique of the ontology and economics of art that Conceptual Art represented in its “dematerialisation” phase represented as much of a challenge for the livelihoods of artists as it did to its chosen targets. One solution found early on was to produce certificates of authenticity or ownership for otherwise un-ownable art. This re-appropriates conceptual art for scarcity economics and as property, returning it to the market. Sol LeWitt’s certificates for two wall drawings (1980) demonstrate how this works. If you own such a certificate and I do not, and we both follow the instructions on the certificate, you produce an authentic LeWitt and I at best produce a forgery.

art and language, guaranteed painting, 1967

This stretegy was criticised (and parodied) within the Conceptual Art movement itself. An early Art & Language artwork, “Guaranteed Painting” (1967), contains a printed certificate guaranteeing that the painting accompanying it contains particular content and addressing the curator of the show it appears in as someone who can possibly intervene in artworld economic relationships.

carey young, declared void, 2005

Carey Young’s “Declared Void” (2005) is a wall drawing that creates a space in which its audience enters into a contract agreeing that the constitution of the United States. Legal form as sculptural form, this is no longer about the relationship between art and money but rather between the individual, contract law, and the state. This is the kind of relationship that produces money, or at least fiat currency, and is a broader context for considering the more specific relationship between art and money.

flower currency, 2005

I love this flower currency from 2005, produced by a group of Viennese artists. It’s both a LETS-style complementary currency and a use of the aesthetics of pressing flowers to allegorize and aestheticize the relationship between nature, production, and value in economies.

danica phelps, stripes drawing, 2013

This Danica Phelps stripe drawing (2013) shows the artist’s expenditure on reparing their car. If it depicted income rather than outcome the stripes would be green rather than red. Phelps’ work combines the ledger of their economic existence with the artistic record of their social presence.

Bitcoin as Critique

yodark, genesis block, 2013

Bitcoin emerged as a critique of state-issued “fiat” currency following the financial crisis of 2008. Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a piece of software that runs on computers (“nodes”) spread across the network that communicate with each other to reach a shared consensus on the current state of a cryptographically-secured ledger. Every ten minutes or so these computers bundle up transactions into “blocks”, each of which refers to the previous block. This is the “blockchain”. This is yodark’s fanciful depiction of the blockchain proceeding from the first block of transactions, the “genesis block”.

milk-crate mining rig

In reality news blocks in the chain are validated (or “mined”) by nodes in the network using increasingly specialised hardware, such as this milk crate mining rig from a couple of years ago. They perform difficult to solve but easy to validate sums on each block, the “proof of work”, and the first node to succeed gets a reward (paid in Bitcoins) for doing so.

crypto hash examples

Bitcoin account addresses, Bitcoin transactions, and the proof of work system all use cryptographic algorithms. These are mathematical ways of taking data and creating an almost un-fakeable, almost un-reversable, almost unique (where “almost” means “as likely to fail as the Earth is likely to be hit by a civilization-ending asteroid in the next 20 minutes”) identity for it. The examples here show how feeding a cryptographic hash function the same data twice results in the same incredibly unlikely number, but feeding it even slightly different data results in very different and unrelated numbers.

rob myers, facecoin, 2014

Bitcoin uses these functions to secure its network in the “proof of work” system by searching for auspicious numbers in their output (strings of zeroes in the current scheme). My Facecoin (2014) implements an alternative proof of work system in which the useless work performed is that of portraiture, (mis-)using machine vision algorithms to find imaginary faces in cryptographic hashes represented as bitmaps rather than numbers.

rob myers, monkeycoin, 2014

My Monkeycoin (2014) takes a different approach, searching for the complete works of shakespeare in textual representations of those numbers.

Paying For Art With Cryptocurrencies

eric drass, corporate fight club, 2012

Cryptocurrencies can be used in lieu of fiat currency for all kinds of transactions, including artistic ones. Here the artist Eric Drass is offering a painting for sale via Bitcoin. Different means of exhange create different kinds of social relationships, buying the painting via Bitcoin is a different kind of social and economic transaction than paying with fiat currency for it via Saatchi Online.

banksycoin, 2014

Cryptocurrencies can be created as complimentary currencies with specific intent or for specific constituencies. This is the logo of Banksycoin (2014), an attempt to create a currency to pay for art and create a parallel economy for artistic production.

theironman, nxtdrop, 2014

Cryptocurrency-based technology can change how individual artworks are owned as well as paid for. This is theironman’s “nxtdrop” (2014), the ownership of which is represented by shares on the “nxt” blockchain. Ownership of the painting can be changed fractionally by dealing in those shares.

We Can Store Information Other Than Money On The Blockchain

rob myers, proof of existence 1, 2014

There are poems, images, and other cultural artefacts embedded in the Bitcoin blockchain, disguised as transaction information. I embedded the cryptographic hash of my genome in the Bitcoin blockchain to establish my identity with “Proof Of Existence I” (2014).

Smart Contracts Generalize The Blockchain To Other Contracts

caleb larsen, a tool to deeive and slaughter, 2009

This is Caleb Larsen’s “A Tool To Deceive and Slaughter” (2009). It contains a computer that must be connected to the Internet as part of the conditions of ownership, which then immediately offers itself for sale on the eBay auction site. This kind of “smart property” is a good example of smart contracts, in which arrangements such as ownership are managed by software rather or more immediately than by law.

rob myers, art market, 2014

My “Art Market” (2014), uses the Ethereum smart contract system (a generalization of Bitcoin to contracts other than for the exchange of money) to record “owenrship” of infinitely reproducible digital files and allow them to be “sold” for cryptocurrency. Other systems exist to do this, such as the Monegraph and Rarebit systems.

rob myers, is art, 2014

My “Is Art” (2014) uses a simple smart contract to democratize the nominational strategy of conceptual art. The contract can be set to nominate itself as art or not with a click of a mouse and the paying of a small fee to execue the change on the blockchain.

rob myers, art is, 2014

My “Art Is” (2014) applies behavioural economics to the philosophy of art, allowing individuals to pay as much as they feel their definition of art it worth. This disincentivises malicious or unserious definitions and indicates an individuals’s confidence in their definition, using market mechanisms to price and allocate knowledge and even truth efficiently. fnord

rob myers, art is, 2014

CryptoCurrency and Smart Contracts Can Be Used To Constitute Artists Groups

art and language, index 002, 1972

This is Art & Language’s “Index 002” (1972), a collection of the group’s writings assembled and indexed for presention in a traditional gallery setting to assert their identity and productivity at a time when their largely conversational practice might not have looked much like “art” to outside observers. Filing cabinets and photocopied sheets were contemporary information technology, later “Indexes” would use microfilm and (allegedly random) computer-generated tabulations. Their use and the production of the “Indexes” was both a solution to and a subject of the problems of Art & Language’s work. A contemporary group could use the blockchain to similarly focus and problematize their work.

the cypherfunks

The Cypherfunks are a distributed music group. Anyone who uploads a song to the SoundCloud music sharing web site tagged #thecypherfunks receives the groups cryptocurrency FUNK in return, becoming part of the group.

dogecoin. wow, such coin. amaze.

Dogecoin is one of the most popular “altcoins”, Bitcoin-derived cryptocurrencies that are not interoperable with the original Bitcoin network. It is the coin of an intentionally constructed culture of virtue and play, with its own argot and social norms based on Internet memes (particularly the titular “Doge” and the idea of a potlatch-like norm of tipping).

millais, detail from "isabella", 1849

These are all more contemporary, and more complex, ways of demonstrating affiliation to a group than simply painting currency code-like letters on a canvas (this is a detail from Millais’ “Isabella” (1849). Possibly the ultimate in creating a group affiliation, or even a society, using smart contract technology is the idea of “Decentralized Autonomous Organizations” (DAOs), economic agents that exists on the blockchain and manage the resources of an organization via code rather than bylaws or legislation.

prodoug

This is “The People’s Republic of DOUG”(2014), a DAO implemented as smart contracts on the Ethereum smart contract system’s blockchain. You can become a citizen, own property, vote, use its own currency in transactions, all functions traditionally provided by the state as conceived of in terms of contract law. Bitcoin’s dream of a stateless (but not property-less, making it anarcho-capitalist rather than anarchist) future realised in a few thousand lines of code. Imagine using (and/or critiquing) such a system for artistic organization and/or production.

Conclusions

  1. Sorting hype and scam from promise, and moral panic from critique, involves a learning curve when dealing with cryptocurrency.
  2. We can use cryptocurrencies to find new ways of (encouraging) paying for art, defamiliarising and critiquing artworld economics by doing so.
  3. AltCoins, crypto-tokens, smart contracts and DAOs are tools artists can use to explore new ways of social organization and artistic production,
  4. The ideology and technology of the blockchain and the materials of art history (especially the history of Conceptual Art) can provide useful resources for mutual experiment and critique.

“Now make art with it.”