Getting in the Gaps – Reflections from Ashoka OneSolution

Last weekend, after a long hiatus from conventions and gatherings, I attended the Ashoka OneSolution event in Gurgaon. I am especially grateful to the Ashoka team for inviting me, because while it is always pleasant to meet people dealing with challenges similar to the ones we face at हैकरgram, this event was particularly special. The level of empathy and resonance I found at this event was quite unprecedented. I’m using this space to capture some reflections, primarily for the purpose of revisiting later to review.

Changing views on organizational structure and funding

Since हैकरgram is not a registered entity, does not pursue institutional funding and works purely through self sustaining volunteer members, we have always found ourselves somewhat peripheral to the global development sector. At the OneSolution event, I found many people both from the Ashoka fellow network as well as other organizations who seem to be coming around to the same view as us, that institutional grant funding is something to be treated with caution and used in moderation. More and more groups, organizations and individuals are seeking sustainability through value creation and trade, which resonates strongly with the principle of social equity exchange that we have been following and promoting. Where in the past I have had to turn away people interested in writing large scale, high intensity funding oriented proposals, this time I was able to identify many opportunities for low intensity, long term, value based collaborations that show promise of adding to long term sustainability for multiple participants.

Acceptance for the “disappointingly simple” solution

Shortly after leaving the United States and entering the world of Indian non profits, I spent a substantial amount of time evangelizing the notion that “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” and that simple, open source, free tools and processes are of far more benefit than monolithic, single-purpose platforms commissioned for the purpose of specific development projects. At that time, technology typically represented 30-40% of a development proposal budget (anecdotal, no statistical research done). We were recommending spends of 10% or less on technology as a rule. This made us quite unpopular as technologists, because it often ended up making the other parts of the budget look excessive.

I was therefore very pleasantly surprised when in our pre-panel discussion my panel lead, Anand Arkalgud of Socion mentioned the need for “disappointingly simple” solutions. Coming from a veteran scale and impact coach, this was serious validation that our vision has not been misplaced! Even during the session, most participants responded positively to some of the most simple and basic concepts rather than visions of grandeur through technology.

One of the questions during the session was, “How do we effect behavior change through technology?”. My answer probably fell in the category of “disappointingly simple” from the technological perspective and “pseudoscience” from the perspective of the “hard technologists”. However as we teach in our Digital Self Defense course at हैकरgram, information (and consequently its security or lack thereof) influences human behavior only through what is described as the “Ashta Paash” or “Eight Nooses” in the Kularnava Tantra (Ullasa XIII, Verse 90) –
Hate, Doubt, Fear, Shame, Disgust, [attachment to] Community, Wellbeing and Species
(घृणा, शंका, भयं, लज्जा, जुगुप्सा, कुल, शील एवं जाति)

Systems that successfully enable positive leverage of these “leashes” or determinants of behavior are the ones that are most successful in causing behavior change.

I was very pleasantly surprised to see the positive response to this statement, particularly from senior attendees, many of whom have had years of experience before I was even born! I look forward to engaging with many of the attendees on enabling such solutions!

Acknowledgement and acceptance of the “hacker” way

Whenever I tell people that I am a hacker and that I train other hackers, there is always a sense of apprehension. This is shortly followed by the question “Ethical, I hope?”. My usual response is that if you wouldn’t ask a doctor if they are an “ethical doctor”, why would you ask a hacker if they are an “ethical hacker”. Hacking like any other activity is ethics neutral. The person engaging in it is ethical or unethical!
At the OneSolution gathering what was most touching was the number of people who came forward to share either their own experience as hackers as well as the number of people (particularly mothers and grandmothers) who came forward to share their own experiences with young hackers in their families and communities. While I wait for the introductions to these young hackers, I’d like to share this for other people out there who have hackers in their communities and don’t know what to do with them –

Hackers are often misunderstood and feared for no tangible reason. One of the areas that हैकरgram works on is creating a broader conversation around hacking than the one limited to digital security and other technology.
I truly believe that hackers and the hackish approach to thinking can help solve some of the biggest concerns facing us today, primarily in the area of behavior change.
The “infiltrate and subvert” approach, generally associated with breaching computer networks is just as applicable to engineering sustainable behavior change in communities. Whether the behavior change is directed towards more consumerism or towards a positive social outcome is determined by the ethics of the party engineering the change.

The jugaad concepts of Lateral Approach, Medial Applicability and Frugal Utilitarianism (LAMAFU) are as applicable to finding local solutions to chronic problems as they are to building hackish technological solutions to digital concerns.
In fact, I learned one of the most important lessons about hacking from someone who is would not normally be associated with hacking or even technology. At a SRUTI gathering in Mangaon in 2012, I heard Ulka Mahajan ji of the Sarvahara Jan Andolan share this mantra for social change – “No system is monolithic! Every system has gaps. [To change a system] Get in the gaps!”

Through the connections enabled by the OneSolution event, I look forward to enabling a LOT more “getting in the gaps”!


हैकरgram Residency Program #1

This month we’ve started our first ever paid residency program. We’re quite excited because this is the first time हैकरgram will be generating revenue directly, rather than through an incubated business.

The first two residents who’ve applied for and successfully obtained invitations to the first ever हैकरgram Residency program are Karan Joshi and Suryaveer Gaur of Bhimtal, Uttarakhand. Karan will be studying data analysis and Suryaveer will be studying information security.

If they successfully complete the goals they have set for themselves, they will both be invited to be co-founders at हैकरgram.

We wish them both the very best of luck!

Social Equity eXchange – The Birds and The Bees

Whether you believe in free will or predestination, reproduction is something you’re not alien to. Everyone thinks about it, everyone has an opinion about it, and everyone is in some way engaged in it. There are several forms of reproduction, but all can be classified into asexual and sexual, with the differentiator being that asexual reproduction requires only one organism and sexual reproduction requires at least two. Reproduction is also one of the accepted “signs of life” along with homeostasis, metabolism and response to stimuli.

The word reproduction though is somewhat misleading in my opinion since to me reproducing what has already been produced is only relevant as long as one is practicing or learning a skill. To my mind what is described as reproduction is actually the creation of new versions of oneself, something like a code release.

There’s an old adage, that by yourself, all you can create is a mess. The suggestive connotations of this aside, the “mess” that gets created is a mess simply because it likely has relevance only to the organism that created it.

If an organism doesn’t find what it’s producing messy (i.e. it has a great reuse, reclaim and recycle policy that works) there’s not much need for other organisms. When the surplus production starts to get messy, that’s when another, complementary organism is needed that can utilize the product of the first organism in some life process of its own, if nothing else, to consume the excess. An organism that also produces a complementary output that the first organism can consume is all the more attractive. These basic principles operate for a wide enough variety of known life forms (including a few debatable ones) and can be used as a reference model.

Here’s an interesting simulation –

When applied to creating value, the same analogy can be extended. There are certain expressions of value I can create by myself, but increasingly most of my self expression requires the support of other people’s intention.

For example, writing this blog post requires me to use other peoples creation as links and sources so as to not sound completely insane. These links and references serve an important purpose. They  tell the reader that my thoughts are not just my own, they are part of a shared collective which has a general purpose and general direction, which is emergent and is evident to observers who have the ability to apply the Flemish perspective . This collaboration is implemented by my citing them and thereby including them in the creation of this post. The intellectual property laws of the world, with their modern expression in the form of Creative Commons Licenses and other sharing norms are the framework in the context of which these citations give credibility to this post.

However, when there is some new expression that I want to create, for which the dataset perceivable by me is inadequate , which has never been shared so far, I need to collaborate with someone to engage with in “brainstorming” or in our current context, a “big bang”, from which conceivably a new chain of causation (which has not been explored before will begin).

Such collaboration is the basis of social equity exchange. Now in reproduction genetic codes are combined. Whether or not the human genome, or the helical strand of DNA, also represented as a chain composed of blocks linked quite strongly to each other is a good analogy for a blockchain or not, is something I will let the biologists comment on. However, my premise is that in the digital world, where we propose to model  the social equity exchange, it suffices as representational enough to be a facilitator.

The Internet itself is a gargantuan distributed database, simultaneously the genesis and outcome of advancement in distributed digital data manipulation. Assuming the Internet to be an analogy for the biosphere, the blockchain could well be the equivalent of DNA, a means to store reliable, authentic data over time.

Since the blockchain facilitates the hard to revoke and hard to repudiate recording of digital events over time, the metaphor of sexual reproduction then expresses itself in this new biosphere as combination and mutation of blockchains.

As always, I prefer practical examples to theoretical ones, so let me create one by extending an invitation to engage in social equity exchange. Now, as with sex, one doesn’t necessarily want to engage in it with just anyone. It is generally advisable to co-create only with people you know and trust (there’s that word again).

I’ll use Sairam Natarajan (who has consented to participating in this demo) as my potential “mate” here.

Sairam has recently entered what he calls “the Business of Ethics”, an area around which he intends to create digital content. I am already engaged in that process (as I write). The invitation I am extending to him is to collaborate with me on creating content that covers both the technological as well as the ethical aspects of social equity exchange itself. What I am proposing is that as we develop our individual streams of content, we periodically get together to do a shared video or podcast or written article.

Now while the intention to collaborate has been expressed, no exchange has been agreed on here.

In order to do somewhat formally agree on an exchange we need what is called a contract.

A contract is a voluntary arrangement between two or more parties that is enforceable by law as a binding legal agreement.

Now, Sairam and I both live in different UKs, he in the United Kindom and I in Uttarakhand, India. If we were doing this the old fashioned way, the first thing we would have to agree on is which country’s law will we abide by, India or the United Kindgom.This question alone is enough to severely limit the value trade between geographically distanced people. So, to test if our exchange is workable, we’ve chosen to replace the “law” that will enforce this contract with the agreements of mutual conduct that Sairam and I have build over the last 18 years of knowing each other. The penalty that each of us faces for non performance is a lowering of the “social equity” we have in each other. If we repeatedly fail to perform on agreements we make, we will eventually lose all of it and considering that we have not done so in 18 years, by most risk management algorithms, we can extrapolate that into the future. Of course there is the chance that one of might live longer than the other, but that is generally the risk one is willing to carry when doing a friend a favor.

Now that we are following the law of friendship as the law, our other mutual friends (who have read this post) can all serve as arbitrators in the event of a dispute, should the level of conflict be high enough to warrant it.

By publishing this post, I am entrusting BigRock, my hosting provider, with the job of keeping a copy of my offer in existence. I will have a backup on my computer just in case and the Internet will create its own backup copies over time as people link  to this article (if they do).

In terms of the offer, to make things tangible I am offering to create a website to promote his business (of ethics) online. Said website will be complete when he says he is satisfied with it and I am making no commitment as to how long that will take. The consideration that I am expecting from him in return is to create an assessment report on which countries are the best ones to set up a blockchain think tank in from a policy and business risk perspective. Said report will be said to have been delivered when I express my satisfaction with it.

Here we have altered another typical element of a contract, which is time of performance. Because Sairam and I share some value perceptions, we can set up our own event, the occurrence of which will render the contract fulfilled. Of course we could also agree on a date and time, but its more fun this way.

Now all Sairam has to do is to indicate his acceptance to me either by phone call, or whatsapp message, or email or a comment on this post from an ID (or any other format that could be attached to this post) that he is willing to endorse and we have an agreement ready to implement.

This is always been the most natural way of doing things. The legal framework of nations is created to facilitate just this sort of exchange and to resolve disputes arising therein. However, the legal framework as it exists today, simply cannot keep track of all the agreements and disagreements that exist. And that is where the blockchain and smart contracts come in. They are simply a scalable way to manage agreements between people, and to create new agreements…all contributing to the evolution of the species as a whole.

Once Sairam has indicated his acceptance (or refusal), the outcomes will also be shared on this blog (and likely on one of his)

Links and Refs:

Wikipedia article on reproduction –

Wikipedia article on life –

The Pirate Organization – Harvard Business Review Publication –

Contracts –


Smart Contract –

The Hitchikers Guide To Ethereum Smart Contracts –



ApnaCoin – A currency for everyone, everywhere!

Issuing your very own currency is nothing new. Anyone who has traded cards, marbles or any other collectible is no stranger to the phenomenon of private entities (as distinct from elected or other form of government) creating tokens, which whether by design or chance come to be adopted for use by people to transact amongst themselves.
Take a casino, where fiat currency (otherwise known as REAL money) is exchanged for chips (otherwise known as TOKENS), which are issued by the establishment and are typically stylized to reflect the branding of the establishment (otherwise known as TRADEMARKS), which in turn are exchanged within the premises between people of different roles, such as players, staff members and a whole range of different “service providers” of varying credibility, all of whom rely on the casino to back up the promise that the chip represents. The casino is therefore entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that it can authenticate which chips are its own and which are knock offs made by a cheap competitor. Since Vegas is very much in business, it is safe to presume that it is possible for private entities to have a mechanism to authenticate physical tokens they issue. The mechanism is typically good enough that a taxi driver with some experience of a gambling town will likely be able to distinguish a real chip from one of the big casinos from a fake one you brought with you from back home and will correspondingly accept a chip as payment for your ride back, though usually not unless you’re inebriated and are offering a chip of a higher value than the fiat price.
Or take the example of baseball cards (replace with WWF Trump cards, if you were in my neighborhood). There have been instances of cards becoming vintage items of the order of paintings or sculpture, and inheritors have been known to be able to make retirement on old relatives “hobbies”.
Or take the case of the innovative neighborhood store owner who overcomes the perennial shortage of change by issuing, literally, plastic tokens with numbers printed on them to represent smaller denominations, which he is willing to take back as payment at a later date for the face value.
Or the multi billion dollar Sodexho, which does pretty much the same thing.

What all of the models above share is that each of them has a trust model that is modeled on currency, except that instead of trusting a central bank as the issuer, participants are willing to trust other issuers. The reason that none of these models represents a viable replacement for fiat currency or even an alternative is because the size of the community that is willing to use the token as a tool of trade is typically a minuscule fraction of an average country’s population.
The question boils down to – how many people trust the issuer of the currency. In each of the above cases the answer to that question varies based on how people will answer the following questions when asked to accept the token as a representation of value –
1. How well do I know the issuer, i.e. what is my estimation of the probability that the issuer of the token will honor it at the agreed on value at the time of presentation. If the probability in my estimation is high, I will be likely to accept the token at face value, i.e. I will be likely to trust it. The estimation of this probability is based on a number of factors.
2. Assuming I am willing to trust the issuer, the next question is do I trust the community of users already transacting in that currency. The size of the community reflects the number of people willing to trust the issuer. However, the conduct of the community as a whole is also relevant to the addition of new members.

Here’s a nice simulation model for trust in communities –

In my opinion, the reason for the huge bubble that currently exists in the cryptocurrency marketplaces of the Internet is simply that the answers to these two questions are rapidly changing for people in the face of global events. More and more people are trusting computer algorithms at par or even more than the fiat currency issuance and accounting systems. Some of this can be alluded to the fact that fiat currency and accounting systems are becoming increasingly digitized, narrowing the gap in usage experience for even relatively non technical users between cryptocurrency and fiat currency. Another probable reason is that increasingly transparent and accountable governance models are being sought by democracies, which in turn is exposing more and more inefficiency in the centralized model followed by fiat currency banking. A third influence is increasing globalization which is quickly eroding the relevance of “central” or “national” banks. The global economy already allows for the peaceful coexistence of many currencies.
In the face of this, a natural question is, how much distribution is too much distribution, to which the answer is, well…there ain’t no such thing as too much distribution. Distribution is part of the natural law of entropy. The better question to ask is, what’s the least amount of centralization that we can do with at the moment?
Following this line of reasoning, it’s not hard to see that democratic nations, in the interest of equality and efficiency, would logically gravitate to a model where technology can be leveraged to create a system where everyone can trade their unique self expression and the products thereof in a public barter system.
To be honest, this has always been the case. We always trade time, energy, data or matter, which are all fungible. The monetary systems of the world, including blockchain and cryptocurrency simply allow us to engage in this trade at a finer tuned level. If money is nothing but a token store of value to facilitate exchange, then the most efficient form of money is the one with least intermediaries.
With the Internet it became possible to have your very own media channels in the form of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
With blockchain it’s become possible to similarly have your own currency, backed by nothing but your own word, which could be verified by your peers.
At the very bottom of it all, a currency note is a negotiable instrument, which in turn is a form of contract. The legal contracts that make up monetary and consequently financial agreements are enforced by the judicial system of a country and the laws that are referred to for said enforcement are agreed upon by consensus, through a democratic electoral process.
Blockchain technology by no means replaces ALL of this machinery. For example, you can write a smart contract that represents an agreement to protect physical property, but even if you’re using a robot security force out of a science fiction book (or a defense research lab), the physical fulfillment of the contract would necessitate interfacing with state machinery. Whether that interfacing takes the form of conflict or cooperation is a matter of circumstance. At present, this limits smart contracts to being enforceable only on digital assets. As digital assets increasingly get enmeshed with physical ones, state machinery will likely evolve to enforce this new kind of contract, provided the state machinery is given an incentive to do so, likely through channels of taxation or by providing enforcement as a paid service or both.

So how would this play out for regular folk who don’t chew bits for breakfast?
Here’s a real world example. I have a niece who will turn 1 this year. She is growing up in an increasingly digital world and a lot of her early life is already documented in digital format by way of pictures and videos. These are shared on a private family WhatsApp group at the moment, where they are of immense value to the participants. As a responsible geek godfather, one of the questions that I often chew on is – Who owns these photos? Who has the right to share them? As she gets older and gets onto social media, who owns her media then. How much control does she have on her own “digital self expression”. And….can I do something that will give her more control over it.
If her digital footprint was limited to her cute photographs and baby videos, I would be well advised to not waste a lot of time on such pipe dreams and focus on something more productive. However, given that biometric authentication is becoming the norm and stored biometrics are digital assets, I’m increasingly convinced that I’m not wasting my time.
So, as an experiment, I’m going to begin work on a private blockchain, using free and open source tools, to be maintained by stakeholders in my nieces life. The purpose of the blockchain will be to track her digital assets, and will allow her parents to track the transactions they make on her behalf (such as sending people photos and videos). The access can be transferred to her as her coming of age gift, allowing her to query who has received authorized copies of which of her data over her lifetime. The cost of maintenance of the blockchain will be covered by folks who want to contribute to her digital future by sending her gifts in cryptocurrency, in exchange for tokens issued in her name. All of this will be done on a completely private network shared only by trusted members of her community as designated by her family.
In the short term, this will also serve as a test of the current state of blockchain technology, and my competence to develop on top of it. It will also serve as a nice example of a personalized blockchain and its utility if any.
My goal will be to have the blockchain ready for ICO (to family and friends of my niece only!) by her 1st birthday.
Watch this space for updates….

Links and Refs –
Markets and Computation: Agoric Open Systems –
Crypto Tokens: A Breakthrough in Open Network Design –
Etherscan Token Tracker –
How to issue your own Ethereum token in less than 20 mins –
Bokky Poo Bah’s blog –
Issue your own ERC20 token – –
Startups test a brand new crypto-currency: ICO –
Wiki Page on Smart Contracts –
Nick Szabo’s Wiki Page –
ICO Basics, To Invest or Not? Cutting Through The Bullshit –
Build Your First Smart Contract –
Etherwallet –
Here’s how I built a private blockchain network, and you can too –
How To: Create Your Own Private Ethereum Blockchain –
Can I create a private BlockChain in my own computer? –
Use Geth to Setup your Own Private Ethereum Blockchain –
What is stopping scamsters to fake sodexo meal passes ? –
Fake food coupon racket busted; 4 held –
The Evolution of Trust –
Coins, Tokens & Altcoins: What’s the Difference? –

Sustainable Social Equity eXchange

This year it will be 5 years since हैकरgram came into being. And we’ve been busy doing a lot of things this past 5 years too. To summarize would be to trivialize and the social media streams at the top of the blog should bear testament to what we’ve been up to.

One emergent notion that has only started to become clear since the beginning of this year (finally) is that the sustainable function that  हैकरgram fulfills is the enabling of the exchange of valuable social equity among peers as a basis for trade.

Due to this unique function, we’ve found ourselves supporting and investing our time in a range of activities that enable peer to peer exchanges, ranging from Community Owned Wireless Mesh Networks to slow food serving, invite only peer spaces like The Bong Book Cafe. We’ve also done a fair amount of voluntary technical research and data collection through our friends The Mojolab Foundation and begun to leverage our experiences to train new members of the community through for profit educational services like TechZone Academy.

Since last year we’ve been studying the blockchain ecosystem very closely as a means to quantifying and making social equity exchange more fun and productive for everyone involved.

Watch this space for updates as we share our ideas and findings!