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Walden Three

By William Sims Bainbridge

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 63 No. 12, Pages 104-ff

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When navigation programmer Burrhus Skinner returned from NASA's aborted three-year attempt to colonize the planet Mars, he faced a difficult transition. The plan had been to send a fleet of spaceships carrying supplies, equipment, and 41 people to establish the beginning of a socially and biologically perfect society. Everyone agreed to the same set of social norms, and humans would be the only living species on the red planet. Of course there could be no birds, because the atmosphere was too thin for flying, but also no mammals, reptiles, bacteria or viruses, so infectious diseases would be impossible. But equipment kept breaking down, in the worst case depriving an outpost with 13 unlucky people of electric power; five did not survive the crash of a transport, and the prime number who returned to Earth was 23. For several weeks they waited in quarantine, as germs were gently returned to their digestive systems so they could survive the biological complexity of their home world.

This gave Burrhus time to ponder what he would do next. He had not abandoned his utopian ambitions, so he naturally thought of the Walden Three experimental community set up by his crazy brother, Frederic Skinner. In preparation for visiting, he read the 1948 novel Walden Two written by their psychologist ancestor, B. F. Skinner. Then he read the 1854 memoire, Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, that was the origin of the community's name. Walden had emphasized the human experience of unity with nature during social isolation. Walden Two had argued that a group of like-minded people could voluntarily decide upon a strict set of norms, then use behavioral psychology to ensure that all members of the group followed them. In 1974, Kathleen Kinkade published A Walden Two Experiment about a very real community she helped found in 1967 that continues to thrive.

On the basis of its website, given Burrhus had not talked with Frederic for many years, he gathered the principle added by Walden Three was distributed manufacturing, in which AI-controlled 3D printing and milling machines could help workshops in the community produce most of the products it needed.

When Burrhus arrived at Walden Three, he found a few decrepit old houses and a set of four new log cabins arranged in the shape of a plus sign around some picnic tables where workers could socialize over communal meals. In his habitually over-emotional voice, Frederic explained, "We cut the wood parts of these tables and all other furniture in the pine log workshop to the East, and mill metal components like the screws to hold the parts of a table together were automatically milled in the workshop to the West. Come, I was about to assemble one, and you can do it to see how much you would enjoy joining us!"

The many wooden boards for a picnic table were already shaped and drilled for assembly with screws, but Burrhus was amazed to see that each screw was as fat as his thumb. Frederic explained that the computer milling machine in the opposite log cabin could not handle iron or steel, so they made all metal components by recycling copper pipes and aluminum trash, which required screws to be big to be strong enough. Burrhus complained, "Oh, look Fred, these screws your robot miller made don't work! Using my screwdriver, I turn and turn, and they don't go in!"

"Oh, Burr, sorry about that miscommunication," Frederic said. "The screws work fine if you turn them counterclockwise rather than clockwise. There was an extra minus sign in the program, purely by accident, so we adopted counterclockwise as our norm. We made a few thousand bolts with the same program, then realized they would not work in ordinary nuts, so we updated the nut-milling program. Soon we built our clocks with number circle and hand movements going the other way, and began using our left arms when shaking human hands. As the British can testify, driving cars on the proverbially wrong side of the road is exactly as good, and distinguishes their culture from the rest of the world."

Frederic went on to explain all very technical skills were programmed into the machinery, so human workers could shift from job to job, gaining new experiences and avoiding drudgery. For example, each month, one member of the community would be selected to make the regular deliveries of milk and ice, and would temporarily take the name Hickman, derived poetically from Eugene O'Neill's play, The Iceman Cometh, about the human need for extreme hope. Burrhus asked why ice needed to be delivered, and Frederic explained, "We have iceboxes in our homes, rather than electric refrigerators. Every winter, our robots cut the ice off the top of our lake, filling the ice barn and covering with sawdust to prevent the huge pile from melting during the warm months. The Hickman also delivers milk and other liquids in big reusable bottles, as was common a century ago."

They then talked about the economy, and Burrhus learned Walden Three had an internal virtual currency called Goldmarks. The name came from the inventor of the long-playing phonograph record, Peter Goldmark, who in a 1972 government report and Scientific American article had predicted something like the Internet would render cities irrelevant, and allow people to live happily again in small towns. Goldmarks essentially were the same as hours in time banking, paying people equally, and totally separated from the dollars of the surrounding economy. Because residents of Walden Three earned no dollars, they paid no income tax.

Frederic had been smiling and lecturing his brother excitedly, but then he became gloomy. "Burr, our community is really in trouble right now, because the outside governments want to impose real estate, income, and sales taxes on us, as they greedily are changing the laws concerning volunteering and barter organizations. I don't know how we can survive. The great communes of the 19th century all produced salable agriculture. Oneida made animal traps, silk garments, and eventually became a silverware company. The Shakers made furniture and beautiful wooden boxes. The Amana communities began manufacturing refrigerators, of all things! But we have nothing to sell." Burrhus expressed sympathy, but tended to think the governments were right, given they protected the commune and provided a range of implicit services and social insurance.

Walden Three had an internal virtual currency the Goldmark, named for Peter Goldmark, who predicted in 1972 that something like the Internet would render cities irrelevent.

At suppertime they sat at a picnic table, surrounded by all members of Walden Three, as they sang, "'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free… in the valley of love and delight." Frederic explained that was the Shaker theme song, especially relevant because his community was struggling to decide its policy about family relationships. The Shakers never divided into couples and produced no children. Then a second song began: "We will build us a dome on our beautiful plantation, and we'll all have one home, and one family relation." That was the theme song of Oneida, where all members were married to all others, and many children were born according to spiritual eugenic rules imposed by its supreme leader. Burrhus decided he definitely did not want his own personal relationships decided by his crazy brother, or even a democratic vote of all members of this group of losers. However, he shuddered in realization that he also was a loser, because the Mars colonization effort had failed.

He thought about the other 22 survivors, a number that could be prime factored into 2 times 11, or 11 married couples. One of them he personally cared very much about, Catniss, might be his partner if she joined Walden Three with him. Rather than strengthening their relationship, living together in the tiny spaceship crew compartment for months had driven them apart. Surviving on the hostile Martian surface had required all 41 colonists to function like gears in a mechanical system, rather than as human beings sharing personal relationships. They returned to Earth exhausted in every way.

Rather than reunite with Catniss, Burrhus wondered if he should recruit some of the Mars survivors to help Walden Three, whether or not they joined it. Perhaps starting with one would be a proper experiment, and he immediately thought of three from which to select the initial research subject:

  1. Catniss Rockefeller had been the chief of Mars logistics and was trained in economics; she could find a way to turn big profits trading the Goldmark currency to pay the taxes, or marketing unconventional picnic tables.
  2. The French international coordinator for the expedition, Paris Mason, had a law degree, so potentially he could delay the taxes indefinitely through constant litigation in court.
  3. Communication programmer Thomas Sanderson could put his hacker skills to a new use: threatening the external economy by erasing bank accounts to make governments relent.

Which one should he recruit to this challenging cause, if any?

Then Burrhus noted that the numbers 1, 2, 3 were all primes, and there was another prime in their sequence that was more realistic: zero.

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William Sims Bainbridge ([email protected]) is a sociologist who taught classes on crime and deviant behavior at respectable universities before morphing into a computer scientist, editing an encyclopedia of human-computer interaction, writing many books on things computational, from neural nets to virtual worlds to personality capture, then repenting and writing harmless fiction.

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