Reflections on Ditchley Foundation's "Winter Dialogue" event at the Royal Institution in London

I was invited to the Ditchley Foundation “Winter Dialogue” between Hermann Hauser and Peter Thiel at the Royal Institution in London. Moderated by DF Director and friend of mine James Arroyo, it proved to be a rather refreshing take on how future technology should or could play a role in strengthening democracies across the world.

James Arroyo, Peter Thiel and Hermann Hauser

After the first introductory remarks from both guests, it was made clear to the audience that we had not been summoned to a staged exchange of entertaining blows in pursuit of a “much desired civilised” middle ground. Au contraire!. Well, yes it was civilised, but agendas were clear, blunt even.

The Faraday Theatre is a wonderful place. I had the pleasure to give a machine learning presentation to a packed full audience some years ago using the very wooden desk Michael Faraday had employed for his lectures on electromagnetism and so I know that both Thiel and Hauser were almost forced to masticate the audience’s tension building up at every turn of the debate.

That’s me and that’s the Michael Farady desk! Fond memories!

It will come as no surprise to anyone that knows a bit about myself that I felt irresistibly inclined to support Hauser views on the relationship between technology and progress as well critical thinking and policy making.

The reason I’m bringing this up to this forum is because, among the various topics covered, there were two that I felt related to Penpot and why we’re building it. Innovation stagnation and technological sovereignty.

Peter Thiel expressed his concern around innovation and progress stagnation over the past two decades “compared to the second half of the XX Century”. He believed that digital progress (Internet, software) might have created an illusion of absolute advancement for the world and yet “we haven’t cracked how to extend human life to 200 years”. Now, putting aside such interesting choice of an example to share, he actually might have a point.

Which leads me to Hauser’s remark on how technological sovereignty plays and will continue to play such a massive role in the geopolitical sphere for the three major “blocks”; US, Europe and China. He actually went as far as to share a simple 3-question framework to self-evaluate one’s country scoring in such sovereignty metric. It felt “correct” to me but also too nation-esque.

Free & Open Source Software, I believe, has always been a transnational engineering effort driven by passionate individuals that exercise a good globalisation approach, based on fairer game theory patterns across participants. It has also made technology accessible to a wider population, thus welcoming underrepresented or underprivileged communities to enjoy the fruits of a collective effort.

I would rather not depend on classical XIX Century geopolitical mindsets where nation state borders frame what individuals can aspire to produce. Breakthrough innovation with positive impact on society demands that we avoid a 3-block narrative. As a European citizen, of course I want the values and principles put forward by the EU to be part of a wider and global standard. I also believe in how nations must be generous patrons for basic science and research without the need to find instant multi-billion business models that justify them.

Foto by Bindi Karia

At the same time, the temptation to impose neo-colonialist practices fueled by a 3-block geopolitical oligopoly will be hard to avoid, it simply pays off so much! A fairer redistribution of technological sovereignty needs to happen.

Even if we play a tiny part in this with Penpot, we want to make sure than innovation through design in software technology is a world’s right. That everyone is welcome to take as much as they need from it and be part of a worldwide collaboration ethos. Otherwise, we might find ourselves in a few years time having another “Winter Dialogue” where not only we have geopolitical powers but also mega-corp powers that have further strained the blackmailing practices to countries or even whole continents.

I’m not sure extending human life to 200 years should be our priority right now, to be honest, but I do hope we can collectively own the fruits of much more shared progress.


You probably know this, but a lot of your concerns and interests overlap with what David Graeber writes about in “The Utopia of Rules” (or talks about in this talk): Big ideas that never got realized, crushed by the assumption that resources should be distributed by competitive mechanisms; innovations that solve problems they created, focus on nation states…

As for the powers of open source software: I am unsure about the idea that they help non-priviledged people a lot; too much of its promise seems to be resting on the assumption that everyone should be be like the software’s creators and have the same education, resources and concerns. (I think Penpot is a good example for a FOSSoftware that does try to do things differently, though)

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Hi @jdittrich ! I didn’t actually know that much of late David Graeber so I really enjoyed his talk, thanks so much! I will read more of his works, they do resonate with my own thinking, as you have observed.

I couldn’t agree more with your second paragraph, I’m not delusional about open source at all. The same way I’m not delusional about the Internet. Just as attaching an open source license doesn’t give you a vibrant and engaged community of users and contributors, such an engaged community doesn’t magically provide non-privileged people first-class citizenship. For that, most probably the core team has to be willing to make sacrifices and not take shortcuts.

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