Artist, developer, activist — Jon Phillips is Director of Fabricatorz, a global design and art technology studio. His collaborators include Bassel Khartabil, Joi Ito, Lawrence Lessig, and Ai Weiwei. His projects have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, SFMoMa, ICA London, OCAT Shenzhen, and featured in Wired, The Washington Post, BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN, and The Guardian. Phillips serves on the board of New Palmyra, an effort to reconstruct the ancient city of Palmyra as an immersive virtual environment, based on archaeological and other clues. He lives in Saint Louis and Hong Kong, from where he is currently working on blockchain projects.
This interview was conducted by Christine Prefontaine in advance of the Humans of the Commons listening lounge at the 2018 Creative Commons Summit in Toronto, Canada. To learn more and listen to more interviews in this series visit Loup.Design/Commons. Feature photo of Jon by Christopher Adams (download high-res version).
Can we start with a high level overview of your work — and then maybe dig into some projects that you’re working on now?
I don’t do work. I bring people together. I created infinite open source projects and one percent of those projects was successful. Of that one percent that was successful, I got a free, unlimited worldwide tour pass. I had a Wikipedia entry. Based on that, I went to China to make computers. Then my Wikipedia entry was deleted. That was the greatest thing that ever happened to me because it freed me up from the burden of the commons. Since then, I continue to push forward on transforming that one percent sharing into 100 percent sharing.
Tell me more about what you mean when you say “the burden of the Commons”.
Any type of religion does unlimited damage to your time. My father was a Christian minister and my mother is a school teacher. Both were believers in what they did. So I’ve always been surrounded by believers. I decided that my belief system was centered around sharing. I had a goal to make everything possible 100 percent about sharing — and that created my identity.
So you’re saying you’re now free of the constriction of an identity?
Exactly right. It’s like in religious texts where there’s some journey — like, “On the road to Damascus…“ Maybe you’ve seen the light, but maybe at certain points in your journey you believe opposite of whatever your goal is. Or maybe you have some reckoning about a higher power. Or maybe your friend is executed on the way and it gives you some type of counterpoint: “Hey! That sharing thing! Sharing kills! Or, “Hey you can’t divide one dollar. It’s impossible!” Or, “Hey those slides present a project that never existed — yet I hear about it continuously. Why?” I value my time, so setting that goal or or making a decision in my own work about being some type of sharing activist has led me to various points in that discourse of both believing and sharing and living and not sharing.
What does “100 percent sharing” mean in a context of the deletion of a more public identity?
I believe in sharing. There’s not a five percent or three percent sharing — it’s yes or no. There’s a form of absolute sharing. Like a zen state. It’s a statement. It’s really powerful. I believe that everyone should share. I believe in free software. I believe in free culture. I believe in open source.
But, if you say you’re 100 percent about something then you also have to understand what that is not. That’s part of a belief system. I’m a believer in sharing, and because of that I explore that entire “sharing” space. That’s the right of a believer — to expand upon a belief. So I develop my own concept of sharing. Maybe I have a piece of bread and you can’t have it because I’m hungry — because that’s my idea of sharing. Or maybe my idea of sharing is to split it into two. I’m fascinated by these types of ideas.
At the end of the day, I’d say that if I have to root my work it would be in that expansion of thinking. But also I’m just playing around [laughs].
I’ve been hearing people talk in a similar way in relation to the concept of “open.” Specifically that it’s super important to know when not to be open. And that the assertion that open by default is always good is flawed, or comes with a bunch of other assumptions that have to do with privilege. Is there a parallel between that and what you’re talking about now?
Yeah absolutely. You could go further, to the beginning of the “open” universe? Beginning with Richard Stallman. These terms were created by people. How about Lessig: “free culture”. First there was free software and now free culture. Open source is a construction. It’s a marketing term. “Hey! I know who my God is! It’s creator of the term.”
We’re living in a time now where we’re looking for the goalposts, yet they’re being moved around and reset constantly. So people can say that they I identify with Creative Commons or open source or free or vegan. Say for example you identify with Linux. [Christine: I had just purchased two Linux computers for Loup; Jon started teasing me about that during the interview.] To me, Linux is done. There’s no innovation in Linux. Linux is stable.
With Inkscape, this drawing program that me and some people made, when I realized that it was a stable thing and there was no more innovation I moved on from active development. Of course, I’m always involved if people want me to come back or do something. But for me it’s always about innovation and moving forward and not getting stuck. I want to be light. I want to go up that mountain. I don’t want to look at it. I want to be on top. The first time I rode my bike to the top of the mountain I saw things differently. And now I make it a point that whenever I’m somewhere and I see a mountain I get to the top of it. It makes me feel somehow different than when I was at the bottom of it.
Thinking about the way you’re spending your time now, can you home in on a moment when you felt a sense of success?
Every day. Every day is an improvement for me. I have all these ideas. All the projects at Creative Commons, for example, when I had the fortune of working there. I had tons of projects. I just kept going. I didn’t have any structure in mind. When I hit the point where I had finished all of my projects, I started working on something else. It’s the same until today.
Back then I used to have a lot more rules and lists. Now I just wake up and I go. Now it’s a 24-hour-attack war. Now I wake up and I’m learning from everything. I learn and get ideas from all over. Even from Trump. One of my really strongest super friends is always breaking through these management systems: Basecamp, Slack. His lists got so long that finally he threw them away. That was a HUGE breakthrough for me.
Now I have no problem throwing things away. No more lists. I trust that everything is in my head. Now I move towards things that I’m better at: talking, social relations, brainstorming, having fun. I err on the side of those things now. I err on side on the side of hard work. And I focus on making my projects real faster. My effectiveness has definitely increased.
What are some of the projects you’re working on now?
I’m working on the Bassel Khartabil Free Culture Fellowship — a partnership between Creative Commons, Wikimedia, and the Fabricatorz Foundation, which has just launched and is connected to Bassel’s work. There’s a lot of work there. There was a period of time, after we found that he was executed, where there was a kind of re-calibrating. But life is still going on. People ask, “What do you wanna do?” All of these people want to do all these projects. And it made me think a lot about what I want to do. About how to move forward.
“St. Louis has the most creative potential per square metre.”
I decided to focus on projects that are forward thinking and in the land of the living. And so that’s a big thing that I’m working on: the Fabricatorz Foundation. I’m also working on projects in St. Louis. That’s a big thing for me. It’s such a great place. It’s weird because I’m from around there — I’ve always had it in my mind yet I’ve lived in China and Asia for so long. I knew that St. Louis was there; I would travel through or fly through there often. But I never lived there.
If there was ever a simulated environment created where I could reach a maximum potential, that’s it. St. Louis has the most creative potential per square metre. For sure. It’s inexpensive to live. There are high-quality schools. There are a massive amount of problems, which is good for creative engineering. There are 24,000 pieces of property that the city owns that they’re just trying to give away to creative thinkers. There’s great infrastructure. There’s a huge number of Fortune 500 companies in the metro area. There’s a great airport, a great train system. There are amazing artists. There’s lots of rich people. The Pulitzer family and Pulitzer Prize comes from St. Louis. There’s art, great architecture. There’s a river. There’s the history of jazz. It just goes on and on and on. It was so strange to go so far away to learn and work and then realize that home was always the best place. At least for me.
That’s a great list of attributes. How are you connecting these things or promoting them or making them stronger?
I’ve moved all my companies and projects to St. Louis. I was very inspired by Drake’s “The 6 God“ as well as Ryan Merkley and Mark Surman — my friends in Toronto. I like the whole regionalism thing. St. Louis is a city designed for two million but there are only 300,000 people there. I went to New Orleans last week and New Orleans is bigger, even after Katrina, it’s now 340,000 and growing. St. Louis is at the bottom of the curve — and the population is going down. So is this a wave? Is it a growth curve up?
I like this idea from Olympics: “What can you do? Is this what your people can do? Is this your team?“ You’ve got one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., in North America, and maybe the world. Definitely the highest crime rate in terms of murders. You’ve got guns — guns everywhere. But then you have a brand new IKEA right in the middle city. What is that about? Then there’s all these lofts and crazy crazy amounts of space. I like that there’s something to achieve. Christopher Adams and I were at Digital Garage, Joi Ito’s company in Tokyo. We were in these nice offices looking out over Roppongi and I said “I don’t think we can do much better than this here.”
“The future is more about cities and people who do better cities. Governments and countries are the result of the algorithm that people use to work together.”
The future is more about cities and people who do better cities. Governments and countries are the result of the algorithm that people use to work together. If we look at St. Louis as an open source project or a sharing project there’s there’s a lot of stuff that has to happen in the code [laughs]. Like “Hey, man, there’s holes in the road. How do I fix that? Where do I jump in at?“ Or, do I want to be selfish and not have it grow and just enjoy all of this empty space? I do enjoy all of the space after living in Hong Kong.
Thinking about your work, can you tell me about a recent or recurring challenge?
My recurring challenge is my body. Maxing out my body and my brain. I’m always influenced by Bruce Sterling’s nets-and-jets concept: keep the internet and flights cheap. All these meetings and stuff have to happen in person. So my recurring issues are with travel and the limits of my body. It’s all becoming harder. And aging. It’s real. It’s also a constant challenge to keep up with change. To keep learning. I can’t do everything.
I’ve overcome money. I’ve overcome limits of trust. But for sure I haven’t been able to overcome my own body. That’s that’s the thing that calls out. That’s the thing that will shut me down.
When you look forward to the next year, what’s something you’re super psyched about?
All of this stuff in St. Louis and the Bassel Fellowship. Making things more real.
We’re entering the internet age, the digital age. That’s amazing because we thought we were already in it, but I believe it really started with blockchain and transaction networks. That’s probably the most interesting stuff — even though those technologies have been out for a long time. Now now we’re in the blockchain-dot-com era and there’s a bubble right now that’s probably going to last up until September 2018. There is a rush of insanity before it stabilizes and then the new winners will emerge: the new Amazons and Googles. Then we’ll have another period of development based on blockchain tech. Innovation-wise, that’s some of the most interesting stuff this year. So that’s what next year is about for me: improving my health, making better use of time, increasing work efficiency, and trying to work more with my friends.
Another thing I’m doing a lot more of now is focusing on spreading spread out my knowledge to others. I went full public, then I went full private, and now I’m the synthesis of those two. I learned how to be public with Creative Commons and all the stuff we did with Identi.ca and Status.net. I was like a sharing hero. Then I became the sharing zero [laughs]. That’s cheesy. I went private because outside of the U.S. — outside of North America and Western systems — the networks are political. So whenever there’s a government meeting, like right now in China, the network is shit. It starts influencing communications. I had a call today from Hong Kong to Beijing and it barely worked.
“With blockchain and all the peer-to-peer stuff is back. These are all the different ways of removing middlemen. All of that is back in force.”
With blockchain and all the peer-to-peer stuff is back. These are all the different ways of removing middlemen. All of that is back in force. That will be the foundation for communications as we move into space, as it will be for your regular networks. Politics will be embedded in those networks. Those things are all super relevant now.
Do you think it’s back in a more robust way?
Yes for sure because there’s true innovation there. Take, for example, Creative Commons. Lessig’s legal innovation was to adapt licenses from the free software movement. Now that’s been optimized and can be implemented and with blockchain. That goal can be achieved because now we can have unique digital assets because of a shared knowledge base — essentially a shared public anonymous database. That’s what the blockchain is: It’s a database.
So, because of that innovation and the others around it that allow for access, we now have a rapid time of implementation. The blockchain bubble comes from the sense of “Oh shit man, shit man, oh shit shit we got to do this now!“ If people can get into the stream of that transition then they can become super rich. So that’s why there’s so many people doing it.
I hadn’t put together blockchain plus CC. I was reading the CC strategy in advance of these interviews and one of the things that they surface is that when you put something into the Commons there’s no feedback, no analytics, no way to “like” or say thank you and show appreciation. What I’m hearing you say is that now, with these new technologies, there’s a mechanism to do that.
Yeah. Many people have tried this through the years. This new friend of mine has a software — a “likecoin“ — and all it is is a coin, a currency that has protocols built in. So for example you have an image and then somebody takes that image and they put some lulz or cat photos on it. When someone clicks a like button both artists get paid. It really works. It works and it’s on a public blockchain. You can verify it independently. And so that’s the big innovation there — there’s some mechanism to improve the system.
When did you get involved with Creative Commons?
When it was launched I was in grad school in San Diego. My buddies and I had created Inkscape, a free and open source vector graphics editor. My sister was ill then. Over the course of a couple months she was dying. That’s when I got an open source. I was spent a lot of time with her, hanging out whenever she was awake. When she slept, I had this long period of time to think and to map everything out. That’s when I decided: OK, I’m going to do this stuff. I used what I was good at and helped make this whole brand really strong.
Then I went to grad school. Art school. All these people are making this cool stuff. I made a site called OpenClipArt. It’s now the largest collection of public domain images. It’s so funny and silly: remember those CDs? “Five Hundred Thousand Clip Art Explosion!” You can still buy those at Office Depot.
I was studying with Barbara Kruger and I was like, [says meekly] “Yeah, so this is my project it’s called OpenClipArt…” And she looked at me and said, “Copyright is the number one issue of our time.“ Everybody else was saying, “This is not art.“ But Barbara Kruger spent the whole class talking about copyright. She asked, “Do you know this thing Creative Commons? I just saw it.“ And I said, “Yeah totally. I’m using it. I added stuff to it. It works.“
After art school I moved to San Francisco. I had all these art friends and this friend of mine Greg Niemeyer, he’s an art professor doing cool stuff of technology at Berkeley, said, “Hey, the SFMoMa has a panel called Open Source Art and you’re the only guy I know doing open open source and art.“ So I was on stage. It was my first professional talk — at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art! The person who talked right after me was new Neeru Paharia, she was the Executive Director of Creative Commons at the time. She said, “Why don’t you come hang out? Why don’t you come work with us?“ That same night I also got a teaching job at the San Francisco Art Institute. From that one talk. It was so crazy. And so that’s how I got started with Creative Commons. I was 22 or 23.
I started at Creative Commons as an engineer. That only lasted a month. Mike Linksvayer was my boss — he’s one of my greatest advisers and friends. We have a deep connection. Very quickly I was I was running and doing a bunch of community stuff. I started when Eric Steuer started and we started doing a bunch of fun stuff together. That was probably year two or three of Creative Commons. Mozilla was in the same office at the time — Mitchell Baker and the early team — we were all in the same office together at 543 Howard. It was pretty cool. So it began.
Thinking about the commons more broadly now, what do you see as the greatest threat to the future of the commons?
Drinking our own Kool Aid. For sure. That’s the greatest threat. Institutionalized self-preservation. Self-serving business models. I am a bit of a skeptic on these things… Richard Stallman will never complete his mission because his mission is based upon the survival of copyright and the system he criticizes. He depends on it. He benefits.
“Drinking our own Kool Aid. For sure. That’s the greatest threat. Institutionalized self-preservation. Self-serving business models.”
It’s like you were a cigarette smoker and then you made an anti-smoking non-profit foundation. You cannot complete your mission because if you complete your mission people’s jobs are then over. The second you start raising money for some goal, it becomes self-serving. There can never be an end date to that project. So actually the number one advocate for copyright and closed software is Richard Stallman — because his belief system will not allow him to not support it. And worse, he can’t believe that he is a supporter of it, which I find very problematic. So what I believe is that the greatest threat is ourselves in this stuff — for sure.
The technology world and innovation will continue. The people who use the anti-commons might be the greater supporters of the commons than the commons activists because the activists become self-serving. It’s like, “Hey who’s in the party? Yeah! All right. Cool. Yeah. There’s a 100 dollars. Yeah. That’s it? Well, we need 200. Yeah! Wait… who’s working on that?“ So there’s a big challenge with that.
“We need to refocus the goal towards something that’s absolutely not going to be accomplished — but that people believe in.”
It sounds really dark what I’m saying, but it’s just really hard. We’re going to die. We have to build in some system — we have to build towards the real goal. Or we need to refocus the goal towards something that’s absolutely not going to be accomplished — but that people believe in. So if the goal of Creative Commons is to fix the copyright system then that will never happen because the goal of the organization is dependent upon the existence of its opposite. If the goal is something like sharing and making it easier to share, then I believe that that can be something that people can believe in.
What makes you optimistic about the future of the commons?
People. People for sure. Personalities. Optimism. Life is inherently optimistic. I look forward to meeting new people. When I think about Bassel and his death, it’s easy to become toxic and decide that the world sucks and everything’s over. As you get older the number of people you know that have passed away only increases. My grandma is 92, and she says things like, “Yeah, that was my school. I’m the only one left.“ She started piecing it together. She’s like the only one left. So I look forward to meeting new people.
“I believe the right answer is to find the best people — find people and help unblock them.”
With the Bassel there was a failure. The goal wasn’t achieved. That was real sharing. The reason he was my friend is because he shared with me first. That’s why I went as far as I could with him. Trying to get him out of jail. But I totally failed at it. So you could just go crazy and scream “Screw this! Screw this country! Screw this government! Screw all governments! Screw ALL people! I’m going to go live in a cave!“ Or something like that. But I believe the right answer is to find the best people — find people and help unblock them. So my biggest goal is to try to unblock people now. Help unblock the problems.
What kind of blocks do you run into?
You know, picking an inferior technology to do business. [Christine: More teasing about Linux.] Because of an ideology.
Do you want to help me sell these computers?
Technology innovation will continue and whether or not we like it. I saw this new Spike Jonze video on iTunes or Apple Music. Apple Music is amazing. Apple is the greatest technology company. They are the ones helping people’s lives more than anyone. Take the Home Pod. People complain, “Oh! It’s _listening_.“ Oooooooooh. Sorry, that fight is over. All these governments are listening. Oooooooooh yeah. Maybe what you have to say is not that interesting anyway.
The future is augmentation to make our lives better. That’s more in alignment with my views right now: How do we make life better? How do we make this decision? What’s the right decision? It’s in support of more humanism, caring, talking — the stuff that’s going to move forward society more than more than mapping your own world view. I’m rambling now. I’m going to be such a good grandpa, oh my gosh. [laughs]
What’s an example of how you tapped or used the commons to advance your work or meet your goals. Why does a vibrant commons matter?
That’s the foundation for everything for me. It’s my fallback. Whenever there’s a block I fall back to the commons. It’s in my DNA. So if something’s not moving then I just say, “Oh yeah. It’s an open project. Fork and move on.“ Github created that whole culture. The fork culture. While other say, “Let’s have a meeting!“ the fork culture says, “Forget it. Fork it. Go.“ It’s very anarchic. So the commons is the bedrock. The foundation. Knowing that there are all these software modules you can build stuff with is super powerful. Knowing that you can build anything really quickly. Knowing that there’s a database of images is super amazing.
“The commons is the bedrock. The foundation. Knowing that there are all these software modules you can build stuff with is super powerful. Knowing that you can build anything really quickly. Knowing that there’s a database of images is super amazing.”
The commons is really a way of thinking — that you have something and you can share it. And that that creates more energy compared to not sharing it. A lot of companies or startups or musicians still have a challenge with this, “Hey man, what’s going to happen to us?“ I think the younger generation — the millennials and those in their early 20s — have this way of thinking built into their DNA. The commons mentality is built in with young developers who have grown up with open and sharing.
“Licensing is not even important — it’s just all public domain.”
Licensing is not even important — it’s just all public domain. They don’t care. Github means it’s open and free. If it’s on Github and it’s public you can use it. So all this licensing malarkey really blocked a lot of people’s thinking. Maybe some lawyers make some money off of it, but at the end of the day the culture of the young generation is that they support the commons. The diverse cultures of non-majority innovators is seriously advantaged by having some type of shared system that’s not locked in.
What I’m looking for is a super specific example. From your experience. How you used it to advance a project or a goal. Make it real for folks.
I use it every day. For OpenClipArt, which still somehow I’m managing, it’s a nonstop daily question: “Is this really free?“ Every day. So any time there’s any project — anytime I need a logo for something I can get it from there straightaway. That’s the number one place. If I need any type of website or marketing thing that’s done instantly now. We can roll out a Github page in minutes.
This is the process, the thing I do more than anything else: You have an idea. You make a namespace. Buy a domain. You take all the namespaces. Then you make a rapid web page. Then you have a delivery mechanism for information. Currently the best are Instagram and maybe Twitter but mostly Instagram. Then you make a Facebook page. I do that daily, maybe two or three times a day. “Oh, we need a name!” OK domain name bot. And then the next thing: reserve Instagram, reserve Twitter, reserve Facebook. “OK, done!” Then, Github. Make a Github organization with the same name. Then connect that to be a self-generated web page. Then set up the email. Then you’re good. From there you can do anything.
That’s the number one repeated series of steps that I have in my daily workflow — and it’s completely commons-powered. One hundred percent. And that’s common among people who are active developers around the world. That’s the current best approach for getting your message out.
How would you explain the link to someone between a vibrant commons and a better world?
Learning is based upon some type of public information. So if you don’t have a public database of knowledge then there’s going to be challenges in the development of your youth. One of the strengths in North America and in Western culture is the library. In China, parks have fences around them and a guard. “Woah, the park is protected!” Where’s the library? “Are there books in a library?” “What is a library?” Those public resources are really amazing: Libraries, public universities, free school, free education. That kind of stuff is just so radical.
“Those public resources are really amazing: Libraries, public universities, free school, free education. That kind of stuff is just so radical.”
It’s also about knowledge strategies and the sharing of ideas and your own ethos — and how you promote it. Maybe Donald Trump should learn how to edit Wikipedia. And use fake name generator and generate a bunch of fake accounts. Or maybe he is. You can edit the commons, that’s the whole thing — but it requires you to participate. That’s the catch.
“You can edit the commons, that’s the whole thing — but it requires you to participate. That’s the catch.”
So the better world part comes from the participation?
Right. It’s a community of practice. It’s through work that things are created. Not through talking. If you want to be anti-commons then you want to increase the barriers, costs, and remove access — no libraries, charge high admission fees. But then you’re going to slow down your own transmission of ideas. Then the only information carriers are people.
For you, what does it mean to support the commons?
For me that just means being available. Talking like we’re talking now. Sharing information and experiences. Trying to get people money. Trying to hire people. Money is not bad. I hope people get past that — I think they have. The internet was about very inexpensive communication and the blockchain is about inexpensive transactions. I believe that the blockchain stuff makes money become not so… loaded. The blockchain removes the value of currency. It’s just a number. That’s all it is. Just a frickin’ number. All money is energy. That realization helps you re-contextualize your work.
“The blockchain removes the value of currency. It’s just a number. That’s all it is. Just a frickin’ number. All money is energy. That realization helps you re-contextualize your work.”
Take the coffee machine, for example. Right now we have a service person to maintain and clean it. Well, if the coffee machine has its own wallet then the coffee machine can know when it needs to order coffee beans. The coffee machine can monitor its own health. It can pay somebody to come and clean it or fix it. There’s something that’s empowering once you understand it’s just energy. It’s like, “Oh, I trust this coffee machine to have 50 dollars worth of cryptocurrency.“ And so now the coffee machine can maintain itself.
Assuming all of those sensors function properly.
Yeah exactly. Exactly. There’s there’s a of lot of work to be done in there but I think that that’s really interesting.