My Personal Journey into the Evolver Social Movement
This week, with some of the RS team off the grid at the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nevada, we'll be presenting highlights from the archives. The following article first ran on Reality Sandwich on April 5, 2010.
The launch of the Evolver Social Movement has been a process fraught with anxiety and propelled by enthusiasm. At this critical juncture in the life of our project, I find myself wanting to review the process that led to this point. What follows is a look back into the remote past, and then a consideration of what we are doing now, and what may lie ahead.
I started the first version of Evolver about five years ago, with a company in Venice, California. One of the investors in that company emailed me after reading a few of my columns for a Los Angeles-based alt-culture monthly. Together, we developed a model for a new company, the Evolver Project combining a membership program with media, including a print magazine, Evolver. I spent a year and a half involved in that effort before the company fell apart.
Before I was tapped for that first Evolver attempt, I was truly a rube when it came to business. I was writing my books and living like a grumpy urban hermit in New York, feeling exiled from the mainstream due to my fascination with psychedelics, prophecy, and other areas of marginal weirdness. During the brief poignant life of the Evolver Project, I received brutal lessons in how to not run a business, as I watched resources get spent before we had a defined product or even a way of making revenue. This was difficult for me, as I tend to be frugal where possible, having learned to stretch out small publishing advances over long fallow periods.
Toward the end of that first effort, I brought Ken Jordan on board. Ken was one of my closest friends. He worked in publishing (following in the footsteps of his father, Fred Jordan, publisher of Grove Press and the Evergreen Review), but didn’t like the increasingly corporate, cookie-cutter direction that publishing had taken. I suggested that he seek a job in the then-emergent web world and introduced him to friends of mine launching SonicNet, a music website, eventually bought by MTV. Later on, Ken joined up with PlaNetwork, a non-profit think tank, started by West Coast visionaries Jim Fournier and Elizabeth Thompson, to look at ways that Internet tools could be used to advance progressive goals. Ken wrote a major PlaNetwork paper on the concept of the Augmented Social Network, the ASN.
The essential problem that Ken’s PlaNetwork group identified was that Internet users lacked a secure, centralized place to hold their identity. The way the Net is now organized, we carom between different "walled silos" that take our data and make use of it or sell it, without our knowledge. The ASN paper proposed the need for a new layer of the Internet, where personal identity information and transactions would be stored in one place, for the user's benefit. The user would then choose what parts of their profile to reveal to any group or organization they visited. This would also allow for different organizations or companies to collaborate effectively, as their users could let them know how they were connected with other groups. Today, different NGOs reduplicate effort and even compete against each other for the same members and sponsors, with little coordination, fighting for scarce resources.
Ken had to explain the ASN ideas to me again and again, for over a year, before I finally understood what I now consider to be their immense importance (some similar ideas have been implemented, such as Open ID, but these do not approach the scope of the ASN vision). It sounds quite dry at first, but if you spend time studying the issue, I think you will find that the lack of a way for people to maintain their own identity and control their own data is a massive problem, one that thwarts the healthy development of civil society.
I brought Ken into Evolver because I saw the opportunity to implement his ASN vision through our model of building a membership card program for the "cultural creatives," the most progressive and ecologically aware subset of US consumers. We intended to build a user-centered profile system that integrated the latest aspects of this developing protocol. Unfortunately, as the clock ran out on that first effort, which had been renamed EVO, it did not happen.
In the wake of the collapse of EVO, Ken and I still wanted to work together. Meeting at coffee shops in the East Village, we considered what we could start for basically no money, which is all we had. I had been running a discussion board for Breaking Open the Head, my first book on psychedelic shamanism, on the web. From the impassioned personal and philosophical exchanges on that forum, I knew there was a vast amount of extraordinary material, important ideas and visionary testimonies, that needed a professional media presence to reach beyond a small group and influence the broader cultural debate. Ken was able to get CivicActions to build the platform for Reality Sandwich in exchange for some equity in our company.
I always had an innate tendency to start magazines. In high school I edited our literary journal, Chimera. In college, my friends and I created our own literary journal, Planetarium Station, which we xeroxed and then bound together. We featured some amazing writers who later went on to major careers including Mark Amerika and the poet Anne Carson.
After dropping out of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, I launched a career in commercial art and lifestyle magazines, working as an intern at Art & Auction, then as an assistant and associate editor at Fame Magazine (short-lived and unlamented) and Connoisseur Magazine (a century-old Hearst magazine that went belly up after my first year there). At the same time, I made friends with a tall, charismatic young fiction writer, Thomas Beller. Together we launched the literary magazine Open City, eventually finding a publisher in Rob Bingham, a short story writer and heir to a Southern newspaper fortune.
Through Open City, we made a decadent, somewhat glamorous, scene, throwing parties in nightclubs and art galleries and at Rob's huge loft in Tribeca. Various celebs passed through -- such as Chloe Sevigny, Evan Dando, Parker Posey -- and we were written up in fashion magazines and gossip columns. I no longer worked full-time and I spent altogether too much time at Rob's loft playing pool and lounging about. While my pool game improved, my life stagnated. I was working on fiction but experiencing little success with it, while I wrote freelance magazine articles to make a sort of living. I began to feel increasingly alienated and depressed – as described in my books. Eventually I plunged into a massive spiritual crisis and existential emergency, often feeling I was on the verge of going insane.
I simply couldn't understand the point of all of our frantic activity since we lived in a nihilistic universe, accidentally created by swirling gasses and particles, where death returned us to an absolute void. In my social set at that time, to open up big philosophical questions about the nature of reality and the soul was only to invite sarcasm and hipster dismissal. My friends conceived literature as a way of seeking the proper pose or stance in relationship to a world that had no meaning outside of one's personal style and ability to see it with a perfectly jaundiced eye and finely-turned phrases pitched just right.
I became interested in psychedelics as a way out of my spiritual crisis, recalling early college trips that had opened my eyes to other levels or layers of reality. These substances were scorned by my peers, but I became fascinated by them again. I went to Gabon for a ritual using iboga, becoming a Bwiti, an initiate. I wrote about ayahuasca and LSD psychoanalyst Stanislav Grof for The Village Voice. As I was exploring this area, Rob, our publisher, was found dead of a heroin overdose in his loft, with the page proofs of his first novel spread across the desk in his extraordinarily chaotic office.
I had already begun to distance myself from the literary culture of my peers, but Rob's death pushed me further away. I increasingly felt that most current literature as well as much contemporary art had become a distraction mechanism and ego trip, offering a way of contemplating the degraded and fragmented state of our world from a safe distance instead of making active efforts to change it. Eventually, I bowed out of Open City, which was continued after Rob's death by his family out of a desire to honor his memory and support his legacy. While Open City still publishes today, I have not been involved in many years. Still I believe the enterprise has validity as it has given many writers their first publications, launching a number of careers.
Over the next six or so years, I published my first two books, Breaking Open the Head in 2002 and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl in 2006. I then resumed my peculiarly inveterate habit of launching new magazines with Reality Sandwich in 2007. Both Ken and I were astounded by the flood of content that was quickly offered to us for Reality Sandwich, much of it of a shockingly high quality. We soon realized we had created something with a life of its own – a nexus where psychedelic culture and mainstream social and environmental thought could intersect, a cultural dialogue that needed to take place. Some of our features received hundreds of comments, and the commentators often expressed a yearning to find others living near them who shared similar interests.
This project has flowed organically since we launched. Once we saw the demand, we decided to build a social network to bring together our growing community. On modest initial investments, we launched Evolver.net, using Drupal, an open-source publishing platform. The shift from simply running another social network in virtual space to using Evolver.net as a hub for organizing off-line real-world communities also happened naturally: Jonathan Phillips -- one of the four people who initially founded the company along with Ken, myself, and Michael Robinson, our brilliant creative director -- has a strong background in community organizing. He began, quite naturally, to guide groups coming together in other cities as well as the US. We realized that developing these nascent connections into vibrant communities was the central mission of our project.
Even in this early and challenging stage, we have learned that the merging of professional on-line media with a social network that supports the growth of off-line communities -- moving from virtual to visceral -- is an extremely powerful innovation. As a new form of “interdependent media,” we can continually offer new tools and ideas for our growing community to explore, then report on their discoveries through articles and videos. We live at a time when the financial system and other forms of social infrastructure are breaking down and the future looks increasingly uncertain for many.
As a recent issue of Time magazine predicts, the new ten-year trend is “The Dropout Economy,” where young people are forced to explore radical alternatives as work disappears and the financial burden becomes intolerable: “As conventional high schools and colleges prepare the next generation for jobs that won't exist, we're on the cusp of a dropout revolution, one that will spark an era of experimentation in new ways to learn and new ways to live.” Time’s forecast could be read as a desperate plea that young people, instead of rising up in fury against the older generation that depleted the planet’s resources at their expense, will make virtue out of necessity: “Faced with the burden of financing the decades-long retirement of aging boomers, many of the young embrace a new underground economy, a largely untaxed archipelago of communes, co-ops, and kibbutzim that passively resist the power of the granny state while building their own little utopias.” Aheard of the curve, we developed Reality Sandwich and Evolver to serve and support these emergent, now inevitable, circumstances.
We are delighted with the growth of Evolver, and gratified by the intense loyalty and enthusiasm it continues to elicit. The main thing holding us back has been a stubborn lack of operating capital. We have started a number of projects and been forced to put them aside. We developed the Evolver Exchange, a marketplace platform for Evolvers to sell and trade their goods and services, as well as featuring companies that accord with our community’s values. Due to lack of funds, we couldn’t launch this site. We had the opportunity to shoot using green screen, recording the silhouettes of a professional dance troupe, for an Evolver.net promo video. Unfortunately, we never had the resources for post-production. We want to redesign and overhaul Evolver.net, adding new features and making it far more user-friendly, augmenting its ability to function as a tool for civil society. We never had a marketing budget for Reality Sandwich, which now reaches more than 100,000 readers per month on its own merit. I could easily list another ten or twenty deserving projects that we have not been able to fund up to this point, tools that would help our community as well as create revenue for the project.
In the past, a sizable pool of investors understood that the bottom line was not the only determining factor in deciding whether certain projects got a legitimate chance to succeed. These people would patronize the arts, endow a magazine, and support other types of cultural ventures and social initiatives. They believed that championing a vision or fighting for a cause was a way of creating value -- what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “culture capital” -- and was also a form of reward. This type of patronage still exists but has become rare. Today, socially progressive investors also confront a bewildering blizzard of possibly promising projects that incessantly seek their support. Given so many options, they find it difficult to determine how to use resources most effectively.
While independent media ventures like the Grove Press or The Village Voice were given many years of support before they broke even, today most independent media start-ups are quickly shut down if they don’t measure up to the high yields produced by bottom-line oriented companies. Only media that panders to a low common denominator has a chance to succeed in this financial climate. Evolver has been extremely lucky to find a handful of brave and visionary investors who saw the value in our project, and provided the capital that got us to this point. Unfortunately, we have not found enough capital to give us a lead time of even six months to a year – enough of a cushion to develop and promote projects that generate reliable revenue, at a time when traditional sources such as advertising have evaporated. We have, therefore, found ourselves in a constant semi-starvation mode of scrambling for bare resources. I feel sad as well as frustrated when I compare Evolver’s situation to that of corporate media conglomerates that seem to cater to the interests of the military industrial complex, as well as so many companies that have deep pockets to produce, promote and distribute the products of Third World sweatshops, dangerous chemicals, or industrialized food that is detrimental to human health and the biosphere.
Beyond all commercial incentives, writing my last book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl convinced me that this is a time of intense transition -- that humanity will either evolve our consciousness and take individual and eventually species-wide responsibility for our effects on the planet, or we won’t have much future here. The Evolver Social Movement is the best vehicle I have been able to conceive, along with my Evolver cohorts, to hasten this transformation, by helping to build a viable alternative culture in local communities, and by producing media that spreads the word. Media shapes the consciousness of the masses, and unless we can transmit a different set of messages through the mainstream, it will be extremely difficult to change our society’s destructive habits.
Vast multitudes are trapped in the matrix -- our culture’s constrained system of rewards and punishments -- and incapable of exploring what might lie beyond it. In New York City, most people do not conceive that the hyper-consumerist and self-centered lifestyle to which they are accustomed will soon be untenable. In all likelihood, massive change will come about through a combination of factors that include a much deeper crash of the economic system, shortages of fossil fuels and other necessities, an intensifying series of disasters like the earthquakes that recently wracked Haiti and Chile, as well as civil unrest and tax rebellion as people understand there can be no return to “normal” growth, as we have hit the resource limits on the biosphere. I am pretty sure this will be the case at any rate – although, admittedly, I don’t know for certain. It is possible that I am biased, as I innately disagree with many aspects of our society. However, I do feel that an impartial overview of the available data leads to this conclusion, as many people, and even Time Magazine, are now realizing.
I look forward to a transformation of our culture and a deep shift in our system of values. Personally, I hope this happens through a global awakening of consciousness rather than a series of catastrophes. I anticipate we may have both for a while -- much like the violent convulsions that accompany a birthing process.
Recently, I held a public dialogue with the great filmmaker Abel Ferrara, known for dark underworld fables like The King of New York and The Bad Lieutenant, at Collective Hardware on the Bowery. Ferrara sees our society has become untenable and unsustainable. Yet he seemed unable to recognize that this situation might require an active rather than reactive response -- that we actually need to build the scaffold for the new society and value system while the old one melts down. I find that most people from the older generation share this blind spot. Many artists embrace the culture’s destructive tendencies, even glamorizing the dysfunctional characters who emerge from our cynical doom-spiral state. We tend to dwell upon the muck, rather than using art to envision and inspire the way out of it.
We started Evolver and Reality Sandwich because we felt the real need for “interdependent media” that expresses both a practical and visionary alternative. As Buckminster Fuller noted, we have the capacity to redesign society, using resources far more efficiently, elevating human consciousness, aligning with the biosphere, and creating a “win win” scenario for humanity -- but most people have no idea this is possible. At the moment, we are coming close to failing what Fuller called our final exam as a species, “to take on the responsibility we’ve been designed to be entrusted with.”
The idea to launch the Evolver Social Movement by going to our community and asking them to support what we already do, instead of trying to create a new project to generate revenue, came from one of our investors. Our first reaction was to reject this proposal. It was so simple that it seemed counterintuitive. Given a few days to think on it, we realized this was, actually, the natural and authentic approach. By becoming a member of the Evolver Social Movement, you directly support alternative media that presents radical and transformative ideas, and help develop our network of local communities in the US and abroad.
Since investment is scarce while advertising revenues have dried up, our best hope for Evolver is to appeal directly to you. We ask that you consider what our project provides, and decide if it is in your best interests to see it flourish and thrive. If you see the value in it, we hope you will join and contribute. This is an elegant, egalitarian, grassroots solution. We are letting the people choose. And if you do choose to support Evolver.net, we intend to solicit your participation at a deeper level as the project goes forward.
To a certain extent, I enjoy salesmanship, marketing, and promotion. When 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl was published, I relentlessly pushed the publicity department to pursue every lead I could uncover. I intend to be equally relentless about pushing the Evolver Social Movement over the next few months. I will probably bore, annoy, and irritate many people along the way. But I am used to that. Some people may feel we have compromised or betrayed their trust. At this point, I don’t mind if we lose the uncommitted segment of our community, at least for a while, as we make our needs and priorities clear. While I am sympathetic to the anti-capitalist reactions we get from some people, they simply don’t leave room for Evolver to survive. Rather than entirely dropping out or abandoning the system, we have no choice but to make use of it, as long as it lasts.
If the Evolver Social Movement flourishes, we can pursue a number of hopefully useful goals. I admit, ironically, that I am one of the world’s worst joiners. I almost never join any type of group, affiliation, association, and will go out of my way to avoid doing so, no matter what difficulties it creates. Launching the E+SM, I am reminded of Groucho Marx’s quip that he would never belong to any club that would have him as a member. I have made an exception in this case, and can only hope others will do the same.
Growing up in New York City, I always felt totally alienated from community and from politics. While I marched in some protests, including those against the Iraq War, I often wondered why I bothered. There are times when protest is necessary. However, more and more people are realizing that you can never change anything by opposing it or fighting against it -- often, you end up feeding it energy. The only way to change a bad situation is to build the thing that is good, that will replace the old corrupt system.
For the most part, we lack forums where people can learn about what is happening, and organize around the critical issues of our time. The Evolver Regionals can help provide this. Our civil society is a scarecrow of a true democratic body, with most people passified, distracted, and ignorant. Our financial system is an extraordinary sorceror’s instrument designed to expropriate value from poor and middle class people and funnel the wealth to an elite class of financial capitalists and speculators. This process has actually become far more intense in recent years, reaching astonishingly surrealist levels. The mass media keeps people in a state of anxiety and distraction, while our financial institutions entangle people in debt and obligation. While a few live high on the hog, most people face an ever-more uncertain and impoverished future.
As members of this society, we collude in our government’s ruinous policies if we do not come together to bring an end to them. To take one example, the US is still engaged in two horrific wars, with over a million Iraq civilians dead as a result of the campaign in Iraq, for which we still have no legitimate justification. In actual fact, our social institutions are currently in the throes of a deep legitimation crisis. Overwhelming force, in itself, does not justify illegal and immoral activities. Given no obvious alternative, people allow themselves to be distracted and deluded by meaningless infotainment. The only way we can build a more resilient and sustaining world is by designing new social infrastructure that organizes and activates the dormant genius of civil society.
Reality Sandwich and Evolver.net are already a hub for alternative news and views, for essays and articles exploring the radical edge of human thought. Given your support, we can develop more powerful and professional media that exposes and investigates, incites and inspires. At the same time, the Evolver Social Movement builds a scaffold for local communities to mesh visionary ideals with practical solutions. In the future, these communities can take a united stand on issues our global community deems to be critical. We believe the Evolver Social Movement shows a possible path forward, a way we can find each other, then use our cunning and creativity to reinvent a society whose destructive activities threaten the future of this world. Considering all of this, I hope you will decide to join forces with us in this social experiment -- or, to use a term from the artist Joseph Beuys, “social sculpture” -- and participate in ways that you find inspiring, and bring you joy.