Transcript of Episode 92 – Alexa Clay on Intentional Communities

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Alexa Clay. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guest is Alexa Clay. From her website, Alexa is the co-author of the bestselling book, The Misfit Economy. She has degrees from Brown University in Oxford, and she says she’s a leading expert on subcultures and innovation from unlikely places. Alexa believes the underworld is filled with natural born innovators and they have more in common with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs or Exxon than you might think. Today, she’s working to create more inclusive innovation, ecosystems and cities and regions across the US. Welcome Alexa.

Alexa: Wonderful. Thanks for having me, Jim.

Jim: Yeah. I think it’s going to be a fun conversation. It’s interesting. This idea of the underworld. It was involved in an exchange with a fairly prominent VC on Twitter. I don’t know, not too long ago. And he put forth the hypothesis that way more entrepreneurs than you could possibly imagine had at least petty criminal backgrounds. I fessed up in private to my own little minor life of crime from the time I was about 19 to the time I was about 23. He said, “That’s interesting, highly correlated with being successful entrepreneurs.”

Alexa: We definitely see that. I think we see a correlation between juvenile delinquency and entrepreneurship.

Jim: The other one I noticed, I’m a classic baby boomer born in 1953, is that of the other entrepreneurs of my generation, an astounding percentage of us had a taste for psychedelics, also.

Alexa: That was actually a question I posed on Quora at the beginning of The Misfit Economy research, how much innovation owed to drug use and what kinds of ideas can we see stemming from psychedelics? And I think the other source that you see too, is often learning disabilities or dyslexia. So people that learn differently will often find a path for themselves in entrepreneurship.

Jim: My brother is a good example of that. Extreme dyslexia, literally has never read a book in his life, but built a successful $50,000,000 company, not bad.

Alexa: Amazing. Yeah.

Jim: He was extremely intelligent, very hardworking, great values, charming personality. He had every skill you could imagine, but he couldn’t read. And so he figured out an industry, construction and hired people to help him on the things that he couldn’t do. Clearly could not have made it in big corporate America, but was a fabulously successful entrepreneur.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I think that was the real point of The Misfit Economy was to kind of zoom out and get away from so many of the people we traditionally associate, with that portrait of the entrepreneur and focus instead on people in slums in Nairobi or Bombay and actually really reframe how we think about entrepreneurs. I think if we look at our jails today, even, there’s so many incredible entrepreneurs that we have, locked up and behind bars that maybe were innovators within the black market and gray market economies. And so part of the work with The Misfit Economy was actually to understand who are those charismatic, who maybe just needed better ties with the formal economy who, because of where they were born, the circumstance, found themselves on the wrong side of the law, but there’s easily a way to think about how that hustle can be pivoted towards the formal economy.

Alexa: I just think there’s so many folks that really don’t necessarily get those opportunities and don’t get those connections into these kind of VC systems that operate as really privileged walled gardens. And so I was just blown away by the people that I met coming out of jail in jail, who just have all the skills of the entrepreneur. Are charismatic, incredible leaders, manage product quality, grow these brands in some ways are leaders of social movements like King Tone was one of the first people I interviewed, who’s this notorious gangster from New York city, who was part of the Latin Kings and led the Latin Kings chapter there. And really provocatively said, “How can we be more of a social movement? How can we take gangs and that kind of organizing in the US and actually turn it into a productive force for society?”

Alexa: In some ways, going back to the root of gangs, how they originated in the ’50s and ’60s as more of these solidarity organizations, around particular ethnicities. So for me, this whole Misfit Economy experiment was an opportunity to just really be in conversation with people that you’d never meet in usual kind of professional circles and hear stories and try and think differently about creativity and an economic opportunity.

Jim: Cool. I will confess, I have not read The Misfit Economy yet, but based on doing my research for today’s podcast, I think I will read it. And I’d love to have you back on the podcast. Talk about that book.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I’m happy to send you a copy. It’s a bit outdated now and certainly we’re seeing so much more informal economy, with the pandemic and people being pushed into the informal sector?

Jim: I’ll get it on Kindle. Because, that’s part of my workflow. When I read a book for a podcast, I very heavily annotated and I use the Kindle annotations, and I use some secret software that lets me cut and paste from Kindle and things like that. So I can create my show notes real nicely. So I appreciate the offer, but I’ll just get it from Kindle. So let’s jump into today’s topic, which is we’re going to focus on a corner of one might call misfits and that’s the domain. They don’t necessarily have to be misfits, but historically they often have been. That’s the domain of intentional communities. We’re going to talk mostly about. But as people who listen to the show, we go every which way. So, I’m not going to hold her or I’m not going to hold myself to sticking to the script. We’ll go where we want to go. To an essay she wrote for titled Utopia Inc. about intentional communities. In fact, the subtitle was Most utopian communities are, like most start-ups, short-lived. What makes the difference between failure and success?

Jim: I also got to tell you it’s a little interesting personal, association with this essay. When it first came out, I posted it into one of my Facebook groups, one called Rally Point Alpha, which is a sense-making community that basically looks at cutting edge ideas and talks about them. It’s a fun, very active group. And anyway, Facebook suppressed it. I go, “What the fuck!” And it turned out because the picture, the art had a very young child who was topless and who’s a bunch of hippies basically, right? With half-naked kids. And they said, “Well, we don’t know if that’s a boy or a girl. Topless females are not allowed on Facebook.” And I go, “Fuck, me.” Right?

Alexa: I know. I saw that too. Honestly, at least 10 people I know said that the article got censored when they tried to post it on Facebook. Because yeah, there was a topless kid of six, seven years old. And one of the photos they used to illustrate a hippie commune.

Jim: That was so screwing. I found a way to do it. I don’t even remember how I did it, but I think I quoted it some from somewhere else. I don’t remember, but I got it up. But isn’t that weird and fucked up? Just the stupidity of Facebook. Anyway, let’s get into what we’re going to talk about here. The idea of what you call utopian, but you also refer to later, I think the more general term which I’m going to tend to use of intentional communities. I thought very interesting, the connections you made between startups and intentional communities. I strongly agree with you because if you think about it at a high level, both are attempts to insert themselves into an already existing set of relations, forces and artifacts that at least passively resist they’re coming into being.

Jim: As an example, when I was an entrepreneur, I’ve been an investor and advisor to entrepreneurs, I often tell people that starting a company is a lot like rowing a rowboat across the North Atlantic in November. The most likely outcome is you’re going to die. Right? And guess what? The North Atlantic doesn’t give a fuck about you, right? There’s waves and storms. And the North Atlantic is doing its own thing. And your little rowboat, most likely is going to get hit by a wave, flipped over it and you’re going to drown. You have to think about what can you do to make your boat more sea-worthy. And generally the advice I give is raise more money than you think you need, because the analog to freeboard on a rowboat is money.

Jim: The more money you have, the taller your walls, the bigger wave it takes to sink you. But be very cognizant of the fact that the world just doesn’t care about you, but in its non-interest in what you’re attempting to do in many ways, will nonetheless frustrate your attempts. I think about the intentional community domain, a classic example is, attempt to actually build a fresh community on the ground is often heavily frustrated by things like zoning regulations or building codes that weren’t intended to frustrate hippie communes or intentional communities, but do so nonetheless. So I think it was a very apt comparison.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s right. I think if you’re trying to get an intentional community off the ground, you have to be incredibly entrepreneurial and you need some kind of business model. I think a lot of people, when they’re looking to start an intentional community, it’s often from this desire because they have some sort of vision for creating a new world in this discontent with industrial society and the existing ways in which society is structuring social relations and transactions. But to actually sustain that community brings in a totally different skillset where you have to shift from this perspective of being discontent and having a vision to actually creating a new operational model for that society. I think that transition can be difficult for a lot of founders.

Jim: We’ll get to it a little bit later. The mindset of a lot of people attracted to intentional community. It may not be a good fit unless you’re real careful for doing things like that. But let’s start with, what’s the draw? Why do people want to build these intentional communities? You said some sociologists have gone so far as to, “Yes, we are maladapted in the modern world and that tribal forms of life are more viable.” Theories of neuro tribalism suggest that instead of mass society, human nature is best suited to small caring groups. And then you talk about the famous Dunbar number, et cetera. And certainly from an evolutionary sense, that makes sense.

Jim: Of our 6,000,000 years on the hominid lines, and at least 200,000 years of homo sapiens, only the last 10,000 years have people organized at levels beyond the tribe. And mostly they’ve organized it even smaller levels than the tribe, the forage or band, the famous Dunbar number of 150, and usually quite a bit less than that. So it’s not surprising that our psychology and our emotions, et cetera, don’t feel well adapted to the big city. I got to say, I’ve never actually lived in a big city, but I visit quite a lot. I went to New York often going to New York, my wife and I, for a month. I always just find it a weird place, especially riding on the subway and all these people looking down at their toes or looking at their phone and consciously not looking at each other and not talking to each other and having this weird kind of isolation in a crowd kind of thing. And I go, “That is the most inhumane thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Goddammit.” Right? And so I understand this idea of sort of a sociological, psychological attractor for smaller forms.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s exactly right. And I think so many more people now with the pandemic are sort of asking themselves what is the point of a city? I think it is dehumanizing. I think there are so many things about industrial society that feel unnatural to folks, that many people crave, wanting to live in a society that has a bit more intimacy that is kind of a return to a nostalgic past, in some ways where folks and you develop relationships over time. I think, part of the sort of liberal market economy meant that people have really cut those ties, that so many people leave the places that they’re from in pursuit of a career or a cosmopolitan identity or for so many different things. And I think lose touch with a sense of place and also a sense of belonging.

Alexa: So I think a lot of people attracted to intentional community, it’s around that belonging question. Which is a very American question in some ways. It’s that search for identity that search for a certain kind of piece in catharsis around who one is, in the world? I think we see kind of spiritual movements often, animated within intentional communities as well. And so people that are wanting to start new kinds of spiritual practice, certainly in the golden age of communities in America, in the 1840s, 1890s, a lot of it was built around that. New economic models. I think a lot of people who start intentional communities have a disgruntlement with capitalism and are looking at different mutualist ways of orientating around resources and around survival. And so I think that can often be a common motivator. So you see a range of motivations from kind of core emotional needs and relational needs to kind of economic aspirations and new ways of organizing to spiritual pursuits.

Jim: In fact, I recently did a fairly deep dive into the history of the Israeli kibbutz. I had an interesting podcast recently with Ran Abramitzky, economist at Stanford who has done as a sideline, a bunch of research into kibbutzes and has kind of analyzed and discussed how some of those ethos applied to being the binding energy that holds kibbutzes together against classic economic arguments that suggest they should fly apart. We’ll talk about that a little bit later, but before we do, here’s another quote from the article. Perhaps the irony is that many of the administrative and managerial forces that individuals are running away from within mainstream society are exactly the organizational tools that would make intentional communities more resilient. That regardless of how much intentional communities with utopian aim seek the step to one side of worldly affairs, they succeed or fail for the very same pragmatic reasons that other human enterprises, notably business and startups succeed or fail. I couldn’t agree with you more.

Jim: We mentioned in the pre-show chat that I live on a farm, deep in Appalachia. We actually bought it from a failed hippie commune, the last Communard as you would guess, the one with the trust fund, right? It was part of the, even bigger back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s, that actually was three or 400,000 people, three or four times the size of the 19th century intentional community project. And kind of just looking at everything they did and talking to them and getting to know some of them who still lived in the County later. It was just amazing at the gross incompetence in every field of endeavor, from construction to farming, to economics, even heat.

Jim: They refused on some kind of weird ideological basis to install wood stoves instead suffering in the cold and the smoke. And it gets cold up here in the mountains, from doing all their heating with two open fireplaces. Some of the locals actually took pity on him and tried to give them used wood stoves. But for some ideological reason they rejected it. So it’s just crazy ass shit. And no surprise that they died within about eight or 10 years and kind of dribbled to… Was clearly a failure within 10 years and kind of dribbled to a liquidation after about 15. It is interesting that those people who want to radically reject everything, unfortunately end up rejecting what they need to succeed.

Alexa: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. I think also what you’re speaking to is, in some cases, the stereotype of the kind of person who’s attracted to an intentional community. Which means that these are often people that are in some ways maladapted to mainstream society and not able to get by and looking for an alternative. And oftentimes that means that people are coming to these intentional communities and flocking to these communities. Because they have deep emotional needs that aren’t being met, which can impose a huge emotional burden on these communities.

Alexa: Oftentimes they don’t have the pragmatic skillset for self-sufficiency. And so, I think we see so many instances, even New Harmony established by Robert Owen in 1825. They didn’t get core agriculturalists. They didn’t get people who were artisans to actually make that community sustainable. It was more this kind of dreamer, drifter, seeker mentality that was attracted there. And so the only way the community could sustain itself was really through tourism. So the most prosperous venture there was the local hotel. I think we see that all too often, which isn’t to say there aren’t any intentional communities, that have hardcore DIY skills. But I think, for myself, my father grew up on a small farm in Missouri and a town called King City. And that was a world he wanted to escape, having to deal with that kind of regular manual labor is huge.

Alexa: I think for a lot of people, farming and that back to the land is a kind of fantasy. It’s an exotic. And once you actually muck in and have to deal with the reality of what that looks like, it can be a lot harder in practice.

Jim: Yeah. Absolutely. Abramitzky made that point about the kibbutzes, right? They were trying to do a radical social repositioning. The Jews of Europe had historically not been allowed to own land or to farm and had been sort of forced by exclusion, into trades and professions. And so most of them really didn’t know how to farm or tolerate that kind of hard work out in the sun and the bugs. I’m going to tell you, being a farmer it ain’t no picnic. And so what they did was they built onboarding mechanisms in which people became members of youth communities and youth organizations for a couple of years and developed skills on experimental farms in Europe, before they were even authorized to come to Israel and join a kibbutz.

Jim: In Ran’s exploration of the natural forces that one would expect that you have to fight to make an intentional community successful. One of them, he called adverse selection, which is, as you were alluding to that, if you don’t have any barriers at all, intentional communities will tend to attract exactly the wrong kind of people. And so you have to build filters and barriers and training mechanisms, which are also filters as it turned out, these European youth movements, Zionist youth movements filtered out a lot of people who either for skills or attitude or psychological issues, they didn’t believe to be proper, to be part of the, actually establishing the kibbutz in Israel.

Alexa: I think that is an interesting point because it’s a balance, right? It would be great to have more source and selection for intentional communities in terms of hiring and actually being able to onboard people with the right skills. But then at the same time, I think a lot of these communities have a commitment to kind of fairness and egalitarianism that makes them reject that kind of filtering system as well. So, it’s really a balance of, how these communities can retain a degree of inclusivity while also sourcing for the skills that they need.

Jim: Yeah. I think, and again, the work we do, because I will now confess that I’m a member of something called GameB, which is a organization that’s trying to redefine the social operating system of the world. And we’ve been operating in kind of theory space for the last 10 years. Over the next couple of years, we’ll be launching some on-the-ground communities that we call prodo Bs. Right now, working on something called the prodo B incubator, where we’re enumerating, the dimensions of the design space for intentional communities. And you hit on one, a real critical one, this one of positive selection for people who are likely to make the community successful vis-a-vis attention, to have diversity in certain kinds of dimensions, including neuro typicality, educational levels, cultural backgrounds, et cetera.

Jim: It is actually attention. Again Ran, lays out in his book that the most successful kibbutzes were the least diverse, the ones where all the people came from the same town in Poland, for instance. Because it was easier for them to trust each other. And so, as you add diversity in multiple dimensions, the task of building trust becomes higher. That doesn’t necessarily say you don’t do it, but it does mean that if you are going to create a more diverse set of inputs, then you need to invest more heavily in how people come to trust each other.

Alexa: I think that’s really key and I’d be interested to see some of the blueprints that you’re designing or the design parameters that you mentioned as well, for some of the prototypes you’re working on. But I remember being part of a community, a temporal community. So short-lived, ephemeral, called Pop 21. And this situation was actually the opposite because we overdosed on engineers, people with technical skills and then where we needed support was more around some of the relational pieces and kind of emotional pieces. And so this was an experiment in a piece of land, a castle really in France, a sort of vacated castle.

Alexa: So, no heating and that kind of thing. But people came together to build open source prototypes for low waste solutions. And so a lot of it was around building alternatives to support climate change and around climate change solutions. The challenge was, probably 50 makers were there and all these different types of maker teams and engineers. And we really had to think intentionally around community building and how we could actually develop more cohesion when everyone was so focused on their specific projects. It was only, for six weeks that the community lasted, but you already saw kind of interpersonal conflicts come up and other kinds of challenges. So I think you can go too hard in the other direction as well.

Jim: Absolutely. I will say that in our prodo Bs, I expect there’ll be considerable diversity in diversity. For instance, at least one person who would like to be the leader of one of the prodo Bs, his vision is mostly a community of techies, on one extreme. My own vision, very different one is to… I think I will at least attempt to get one going here in the next couple of years, is to be a community for upper working class and lower middle class millennials with children, family incomes, 50 to $75,000 a year. Where we live, in rural Virginia that might be an assistant manager at Wendy’s and a worker at the Walmart warehouse. Between the two of them, they make about 60,000 a year.

Jim: They’re trying really hard to do what’s right. But life sucks. The schools are terrible, the cultural tractors are not good. These are in my view, the folks that really need to have a better way of life that’s real, that actually works for them, but not full of too much cultish stuff.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I think that is spot on. I think so much of my disenchantment with intentional communities has been around just the extreme privilege of a lot of those people. You mentioned, early on the sort of trust fund, intentional community problem. When I think about who actually needs these resources, when we think about the opportunities for transitioning land and real estate to communities, it’s actually people in the lower and middle classes that could really benefit the most, as well as an emerging generation that feels cut off from some of the economic opportunities that maybe their parents had.

Alexa: I think we often see this correlation between these moments of economic depression and this interest in intentional communities. I think the kind of peak inequality that we’re experiencing today is definitely to be a driver for people to kind of rediscover some of the value of these communities.

Jim: Yeah. What people call the precariat, right? People who are just on the edge of falling out of the upper middle-class family background that they may have come from into being permanent baristas or what have you. We’re thinking that those folks may well be an attractive part, the recruitment into these prodo Bs and especially if we can organize real economic work, right? And as you point out in your article, several places, many of the more successful intentional communities that live today like Findhorn, and there was one in Brazil you talked about, and I think the one in Italy, Tamara, an awful lot of their income is actually very meta.

Jim: It’s conferences and spiritual tourism and things like that. At least personally, I’m not interested in that. It might be a sideline, a little bit of a boost to the economy. But it seems to me that this idea of prodo Bs or intentional communities is really going to prosper. It has to be coupled to the real economy of the world. On the other hand, it has to not adopt all the bad values of the real economy of the world. Our GameB critique is that GameA i.e the status quo is riven with GameA malware, essentially game theoretical, race conditions that occur, which essentially guarantee bad outcomes. Give an example, if you’re an industry, let’s say everybody is being ethical and abiding by reasonable cultural norms. And the industry is prospering for everybody and doing a good job. All it takes is one ass hole company, to let’s say, push the edge on sleaziness.

Jim: Unfortunately it may well work and increase their profit margins and their stock price and all that. And everybody else is unfortunately forced into a game, theoretical race to match them in sleaziness. At least that’s one of our theories. That’s what’s been going on in America since about 1975, is a race to the bottom around ethics and virtue in business. So while we want to be able to compete with the status quo, we have to do so in an ethical way. And that’s a challenge.

Jim: This is terrible to say, but even recently I’ve been feeling nostalgic for the era of old-school capitalists on that kind of paternalistic capitalism of people like Hershey, who set up these entire towns that were almost intentional communities in some way, but with the idea that you really, took care of your workers and we’re designing educational systems for them, and just creating all this kind of social safety net. I think at times it’s a bit creepy because you see these capitalists who veer into sort of culture building. It had a moral imperative and a consideration, and I think business leaders today, they don’t have that sense.

Jim: Oftentimes they’re not paying the taxes that would afford those kinds of safety nuts. I would agree except that, I don’t have much in the style for the proprietary model, where it’s the business guy doing it so much better for the community to self-organize and be a bottoms up creation, that’s fundamentally democratic in it’s governance, and that’s something that we’re very strong on in the GameB world, is it has to be self-organizing, network-centric, decentralized, and in some form at least, Democrat.

Alexa: Yeah. I think that’s right. I’m doing a lot of work now with deliberative democracy and citizen panels and just thinking how we can get, I think economic democracy, isn’t something that we experiment with, too heavily here in the States. It feels like it’s often, democracy is talked about in political spheres rather than economic spheres. I do think that’s important. When I was in Germany, there was a whole movement, for self ownership. I think you do see more democratic forms of economic organizations existing there, which means that it isn’t just external shareholders that are controlling how organizations and firms are run, but it’s actually the people who have a stake in these companies, the workers who have a say in the direction of the firm.

Alexa: I think there are limits to that too. I think there’s more room for experimentation to understand exactly what are the kinds of systems and structures that work to allow for that kind of cooperative organizing within companies.

Jim: Fortunately, there’s actually more examples than people realize in the US. There are co-ops, for instance, both employee-owned co-ops and customer-owned co-ops. As a farmer, we’re members of two co-ops, basically purchaser co-ops where we buy our supplies and fertilizer and certain kinds of field work, et cetera. If the co-op is profitable at the end of the year, we get a little dividend, though truthfully, they don’t aim to produce much in the way of dividend rather to provide the services and products to the farmer at the lowest possible cost. In town, where we have a little condo, we are a member of a grocery co-op. Again, consumer-owned. And it’s quite interesting. And then of course, thousands of credit unions, which are essentially depositor-owned financial institutions, and they’re still even a couple of hundred mutual banks, which are a very, very interesting loophole in the banking regulations, which allows a group of people to come together and form a bank with no capital.

Jim: So there are a lot of forms out there, but for whatever reason in general, have not been too successful at out-competing the more rapacious forms of capitalism. And we think part of the challenge is how do we take some of the learnings from these forms and hybridize them so that they’re more efficient and more effective and use higher order methods of collaboration to literally be able to out-compete the other guys.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s great. I follow pretty closely the work of the democracy collaborative, and I know they’ve been doing a lot to think about how some of those cooperative models can be applied to the pharma sector and in healthcare. And I just think it makes so much sense when we’re seeing pharma companies have these really perverse incentives to keep prices high, really believe in individual ownership around R&D when, it makes so much more sense for research and development, to be more of an open source process, kind of walled garden with common ownership around IP. And so, I think those types of things are exciting where, if we could be shareholders of more of a public option pharma company that could actually deliver to the needs of most Americans, I’d love to see something like that take off. But yeah, I think there’s a lot of relational work. There aren’t necessarily super cut and pastable templates for this. It’s very contextually-driven.

Jim: It’s hard work, as you point out 90% of startups fail. So we should not expect every one of these ventures to be successful, but learning will accrue from each one. Again, our GameB hot buttons is it’s a moral imperative for the community to share the learnings across the community. So if we do a startup, auto repair business in Stanton, Virginia, for instance, on GameB principles and GameB collaboration methods and GameB democratic governance mechanisms, and it works, we have a moral obligation to write that up and share it with the broader community. So people can take that template and apply it elsewhere. That’s how we see, essentially experiment results in learning, results in propagation.

Alexa: Yeah, I mean, I just think the whole IP system that we’ve got today is crazy. It’s the first question that VCs often ask when they’re investing in something, is around that proprietary knowledge. I think it just really prevents the diffusion and rapid acceleration of innovation in so many instances. It can average take 40 years for new technology to be deployed and socialized within society. I think that’s because of that IP problem and even whole institutions that sit on IP patents that never get applied. I think if Harvard were to take so many of the patents that it was sitting on and actually make them available to a public comment, I think we’d see really interesting kind of interventions developing and opportunities for economic growth, for more kinds of people.

Jim: Lets get back down a little bit to the discussion of intentional communities. You list a series of failure modes. I thought that was interesting. I think you had fun putting it together. Malarial infested swamps, false prophecy, sexual politics, tyrannical founders, charismatic con-men, lack of access to safe drinking water, [inaudible 00:32:11] quality, unskilled labor, restless dreamer syndrome, land not suitable for farming. There’s so many ways you can fail. And one of the patterns I noticed there, and one I of course noticed, in the history of intentional communities is what one might call the cult phenomenon, where the community gets captured into some bad set of attractors around. It’s a mix of false prophecy, sexual politics, tyrannical founders and charismatic con-men. What can you say about the bad attractor of cults with respect to intentional communities?

Alexa: I mean, I think too often, this is the story where you have a sort of charismatic conman who can create a sort of new wave spiritual philosophy that can be really attractive to people and people that are maybe a bit lost or searching for that belonging or that sense of orthodoxy will be attracted to that. And so often that doesn’t translate into a community that is grounded. It really translates into this kind of false prophet. And some people are better peddlers of visionary plans than they are actual kind of operationalist behind those plans. So, I think we definitely see this problem again and again, and I think that’s sort of the difference in my mind between a cult and an intentional community, is how much is that community dependent on a singular individual in a singular vision. I think what’s terrible about so many of the intentional communities that veer into that cultish kind of operating mentality is you recreate so many tyrannies within that system that are worse than mainstream society.

Alexa: And so the kinds of challenges that you’re dealing with from whether it’s deep misogynistic tendencies of a founder to kind of a real need for control by one person. I think you just encounter so many psychological dysfunctions within that community that are far worse than anything that you would have in mainstream society.

Jim: It does seem to be a bad attractor. A lot of it is around what we call psycho technologies and psycho technologies can include things like meditation or psychedelic drugs, or even religion or psychotherapy. And when people are approaching these psychologically interesting states, they seem to be more susceptible to cultish-ness And while we think psycho technologies may actually be very useful for helping people make the transition from their GameA malware, as we call it and be able to play GameB as real humans, again, it’s a dangerous liminal zone where, unless one thinks from the beginning about things like governance, you asked about what are some of these design dimensions? Another one is we call governance, which is before someone launches a prodo B, they really ought to define what is the governance operating system going to be?

Jim: We look at the history of intentional communities. They can be all over the place from the charismatic dictator, not one we would recommend. To the other extreme, the original Israeli kibbutz. All the governance initially was done by a general meeting every Saturday night of all the members. That turned out to be okay for building solidarity, but not so good at making decisions. And so over time, the Israeli kibbutzes evolved towards hybrid where there was an appointed board of directors, essentially that managed many parts of the kibbutz, but certain major decisions such as the budget were still subject to approval by the general meeting. So then they just kind of learned by trial and error and we strongly suggest to help immunize against cults, that a transparent governance system be put in place from day one and that it be realized that it’s an experiment in process. And so it doesn’t become something that you worship, but rather something that you evolve.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s this term tyranny of structureless-ness, which is often a critique of these systems, in a place where there’s lacking clearly defined rules and protocols for decision-making that often you’ll have a culture emerge, that becomes pretty tyrannical and centered around a few personalities. And you have a culture emerge, that’s not really named, that’s more informal. That can be pretty toxic. I think you’ve even seen this happen in formal companies, in places where maybe there’s a relaxed hierarchy and then you have an informal culture that kind of ruse the company. And so I think spotting that early and being able to actually kind of have a compliment between these formal and informal systems is pretty important.

Jim: Exactly right about real companies. The third company I worked for, it was a wonderful business example. My last job in corporate America, before I became a entrepreneur, they fit that bill. It was poorly structured, organizationally, very loosey goosey, and was utterly rife with sort of politics, bad faith, sexual harassment. I was really glad to have had that experience because for many years after, I would often say, “What would company X have done in this situation? Let me make sure I do the opposite.” And so yeah, the tyranny of unstructured. I like that. But on the other hand, you don’t want to worship the structure either. Particularly because the idea of intentional communities is still not well thought through and not mature. We don’t have wonderful repeatable success models. It seems to me that we have to think about each of these as an experiment, kind of an experiment in design spaces.

Jim: As I say, we were thinking through these many different dimensions, what are your entrance rules? What’s your capital structure? What’s your location? What’s your economic model. What’s your resource self-reliance model? How are you going to do education? How are you going do marriage? There are different settings on each of those dimensions. Because it’s a high dimensional space, the combinatorics of all those dimensions is some vast number greater than all the stars in the universe. So you one cannot say in principle what design setting is right? And of course, all of it’s going to be contextual. A design setting that works in fertile farm land in Virginia may not work at all in urban Detroit for instance. And so we see this exploration of the dimensions of design as a ongoing process, and that will even learn from the failures. Okay. This set of setting sort of work, but oops, that’s when it got wrong and that’s why it crashed and burned. So probably the next time people will not do that.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, what I hear in what you’re saying is this need for kind of cultural sampling, basically and cultural hybridity. To me, that’s fascinating because I do feel like we’re in a moment when we can sort of borrow and steal from so many different kinds of cultures. So you can have an element of open source culture, mainstream business culture. You can have a dash of kind of radical hippie culture. I think it’s when these things and these different strains begin to kind of come together, that you can see more resilient types of community, that isn’t just dependent on a singular belief system.

Jim: That’s the meta design problem, right? That you have to set some settings for each community, but you have to realize that it’s a sample from a much, much higher set of possibilities. If we launch three prodo Bs in the next two years, I would hope that they’re actually different in how they configure their self and design space, that we can get some more rapid learning that way rather than being a doctrinaire and say, “This is the one way to do it.” That’s very dangerous.

Alexa: And then also to avoid that sort of cultural stagnation piece, I mean, you mentioned that the land that you purchased and live on used to be an intentional community. And I think this ability for intentional communities to reinvent themselves and evolve is a challenging one. Because I think so many can stagnate in the kind of energy with which they were founded. But this idea of kind of legacy planning for intentional communities is really interesting how, how these communities can kind of cede power and imagination to new generations. I have a colleague and friend who lives on an intentional community in West Virginia that was founded in the ’60s and now trying to give leadership and strategic direction over to a generation of millennials. And that comes with a lot of challenge. A feeling that the older generation now has this loss of control, trust issues that arise. And also this question of who gets to be invited in to be that next generation kind of steward. How is that process fair and equitable?

Jim: In the kibbutz experience, they had exactly the same thing. The first generation of Kibbutzniks were very highly motivated around two things; Zionism, the return of Israeli people to Palestine and radical egalitarian socialism. Those were bedrock fundamentals in the original kibbutz. And in fact, until 1977, essentially all the kibbutzes were radically egalitarian where everybody got paid exactly the same amount, whether they were the lawyer or the accountant, or the person who washed dishes in the communal dining hall. As the other generations, kibbutzes started in 1910, so it’s been around for a long time. So there’s been quite a few generational changes.

Jim: Over time, the next generations were frankly much less interested in either Zionism or socialism. In that they had been born in Israel. So Zionism had already been achieved and socialism particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union, but even before that, when it was sort of clear that socialism maybe as written, wasn’t such a great idea, had much less draw upon the minds of the next generations. And the later generations of kibbutz became much more hybrid, much less doctrinaire, in either socialism or Zionism. It seems that one should anticipate that. If one’s movement is going to be successful over generations, generational transition and evolution and change needs to be expected.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I know this is the case too, in this emerging kind of allyship between nones and nuns. So N-O-N-E-S and N-U-N-S. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of this, but-

Jim: Not at all. So tell us about this. This sounds interesting.

Alexa: Yeah, it’s been fascinating. A number of my friends have been involved in this. It really started out as bringing together spiritual nones. So N-O-N-E-S, which are basically millennials that identify as spiritual, but not religious. And so that point around kind of not wanting to be part of the orthodoxy of religion, but still having a spiritual domain to oneself and looking to explore that and then Catholic nuns, N-U-N-S and bring them together and in conversation. And eventually these millennials actually took up residency in convents. And so the whole conversation was how could the sort of learnings and insights from these Catholic nuns be passed down to this new generation of millennials that were equally committed to social justice? And some of the things that these more kind of liberal progressive sect of the Catholic church were committed to, and also a kind of real estate play.

Alexa: There’s so many Catholic institutions right now that don’t have a new generation. The average age of a nun is something like 77. And so they’re not getting these new converts that they would need to actually breathe fresh life into these communities. And yet they have these incredible institutions, structures. And so part of the conversation was how could some of these infrastructures be transitioned to some of these millennial communities? What kind of investment tools would support that? Culturally, would there be a good fit? And so there’s been a number of dialogues and residencies to sort of grow thicker connections and trust between these two very different communities to see if that can potentially be fruitful.

Jim: That’s really interesting. And something I never would’ve thought of, but I’m glad people are out there working in that space. Any early returns on whether it looks like it’s going to work?

Alexa: I think when you look at just some kind of incentive systems at play, I think you’re seeing the aging nature of the nuns. You’re seeing health care costs. And you’re seeing a lot of these churches be sold off into the speculative real estate economy where a church can get converted into condos or something like this. And so for them to feel like to take care of some of their retirement, their healthcare costs, for them to feel values aligned, it makes sense that they would try and transition these assets to communities that felt in keeping with their tradition for social justice, even though it could be, named very differently. So, I think it has potential. You’re seeing an alignment of incentives, but, there’s a lot more kind of trust to be done, but certainly at a residential point for millennials to begin to inhabit some of these infrastructures, we’re already seeing that happen. I’ll send you an article. I know that New York Times profiled it recently, as well.

Jim: Interesting. Lets jumped back into your article a little bit and again, explore some of these dimensions of the design that surfaced in your description of, I don’t quite know how to pronounce it, Damanhur?

Alexa: Damanhur, in Italy?

Jim: Yeah.

Alexa: I say Damanhur.

Jim: Damanhur, in Northern Italy, Torino, I think it was. This is interesting. Some of the choices they made in the design space, one of which, which struck me as interesting and somewhat different than some of the thinkings that I think our community has been doing. But nonetheless, we’re thinking about, is Damanhur is a Federation of communities made up of more than 600 full-time citizens. That’s pretty big for intentional community. Primarily organized into small nucleus or makeshift families. The nucleus started as groups of 12 people. Now the number 15 to 20. Scale is critical. [Tamaris 00:46:04], one of the members cautions, if you have too few people, you implode because you don’t have enough inputs, but if you have more than 25 people, it’s hard to create intimacy and keep connections close. That’s interesting.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I think being able to design different scales for intentional community is super important. In terms of companies that I’ve been a part of our organizations, anytime you get over sort of that 25 mark, you do start to lose some of the magic. And so for there to be a more distributed and self-governing approach within this federation model, I think that’s a huge evolution, that I think goes to the success of this community in so many ways. Another important thing about this community is they also allow people to have kind of normal jobs. And so it can be a mix of serving the community and having labor that’s tied to a mutual disorientation while also being able to have side hustles, within the local community or through freelance work. I think that allows people to actually be able to sustain their presence and makes the community a bit more economically viable

Jim: People I know, Inspiral have a similar kind of model where there’s a mix of engagement with the outside world, in fact, probably a majority as well as internal, mutual work. So that’s an interesting dimension as well. How much of one’s economic work is within the community and for the community versus outside and bringing the resources back to the community that are outside. Well, worth experimenting with.

Alexa: Yeah. I remember early on, in my conversations with groups like Inspiral, there was this metaphor of, do you want to be an Island or do you want to be a peninsula? With this idea of kind of, how poorest do you want your boundaries to be? Sometimes, being an intentional community that’s too much of an island can be really closed off from economic opportunities, certainly, but also can have a kind of cultural stagnation problem. And so being more of this peninsula where you still have some degree of kind of osmosis with mainstream society can bring oxygen into your community and create viable opportunities for people, and also have a bit more foot traffic that allows that community to evolve and to bring in new ideas and not to get too isolated.

Jim: In fact, I use a fairly explicit biological metaphor. It’s interesting, you mentioned oxygen. I suggest that a community of this sort ought to have a boundary around it, which we think of as a semi-permeable membrane. This is essentially how the cell membranes work in our body. Every cell membrane has a different setting on its permeability, what it lets in and what it lets out. It typically lets out its metabolic toxins. It’s making sugar, making proteins or toxic side products, which have to be gotten out of the cell or the cell will die. And so they leave the cell and they eventually get picked up into the blood and taken to deliver to be cleaned up. But the cells also need to be permeable on the way in. They need to be able to absorb oxygen. They also have to have export CO2, that’s really important.

Jim: Oxygen, food stocks, et cetera, essentially the attributes of the membrane of the ins and outs. The input output algorithms of the membrane are absolutely critical for the health of the cell. And I would suggest thinking about the boundary of the intentional community in the same way, it would be very useful.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I 100% agree. Otherwise, I think there’s a risk of group think and incestuousness and a bit of, these challenges where you lose perspective as we were talking earlier about how can these communities stay relevant and evolve, that what you’ve described creates that space for that membrane that can be penetrated where it’s not just closed off from the rest of the world.

Jim: Yeah. I’ve also suggested that, as you did, it’s a useful way to recruit. For instance, in an essay I wrote about prodo Bs, I suggested that the community become attached to the wider communities, basic social functions, like recreationally softball, and become members of the volunteer fire department, join the relevant churches in the community that the members might have interest in, et cetera. That’s another way to not become sterile and too inwardly focused. And also by the way, as a way to communicate the story of the community to other people who might want to become members.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s what’s most interesting to me and not purely from a recruitment place. But just to say the part of this that’s most interesting, isn’t the existence of the intentional community itself, but the alternative ideas and processes and subcultures that get developed within that community, that can have the application to mainstream society and to sites around the world. And so I think the more porous those boundaries, the more you allow something to spin out. Can we see intentional communities as these kinds of sandboxes for spinning out really important, mutualist ideas around cooperatives that we were talking about or kind of other forms of culture?

Jim: And governance. I mean, I think if we do experimentation in governance, we may find some unusual things that work. For instance, one of the areas I work in is called liquid democracy, which is this odd hybrid between direct democracy and delegative democracy. In that in theory, every single person who can vote on every single issue, but the truth is, most people aren’t that well-informed on most issues nor are they interested. So you can delegate your vote in any domain you want, to somebody else. So let’s say if we’re talking about national politics, maybe I delegate my vote on defense to my retired Air Force Colonel, uncle. And I delegate my vote on the environment to the Sierra club and I delegate my vote on gun control to the NRA. I’m able to essentially custom build my own representation. And here’s the key part. I can take it back at any time.

Alexa: When you lost trust in who you’ve outsourced it to. Yeah.

Jim: Yeah. My uncle went nuts, Goddammit. Right? He used to be a sort of antiwar because of his own experiences, but now he’s become a War hawk, Goddammit. I’m taking my vote back and you can do that. And then you can vote at any time on any issue and override your delegation. So for instance, let’s say there’s a vote to go to war and Iraq. One can cast one’s own direct democracy, vote on that, which then overrides, all of your delegations, which is quite a thing. I know it’s a good idea, but whether it will actually work or not don’t know. But trying it out at the scale of an intentional community of a few hundred would be a great way to get some sense of what game theory traps, luck in liquid democracy, and what interesting opportunities look there as well.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I love that idea that these are prototyping zones, for concepts like liquid democracy. I know I did a piece at some point for Anna as well around live-action role-playing and these kinds of experimental worlds that we can pop up and dissolve. And I think we can use that genre to really test out different ideas. If we’re trying to experiment with a new financial system, beyond a kind of fiat currency, what does that look like? Let’s play, let’s do a lap for a live action role playing game, over the course of a weekend and get into some of those issues. I remember, I had a course, that was around solidarity economy principles in college. And at the end of the course, we had a kind of gift economy moment and it really failed, after we’d sort of intellectually really gotten behind a lot of ideas associated with gift economy.

Alexa: We actually created one at the end of the class and goods weren’t transferable. There was a reason that cash needed to exist and someone who sort of knitted socks and wrote poetry, there wasn’t a large enough market for that. So I think the more that we can sort of test some of these alternatives, so that in moments where we do experience elements of societal crisis, that these ideas are ready. I remember with the financial crisis feeling like, “What a big opportunity to start to seed alternatives within the system.” And yet it didn’t happen. We kind of rebooted to the existing kind of mainstream financial system. And so, I think the more that these ideas can be tested and ready for times where, we actually have the potential through crisis to adopt them, we’ve seen this with the pandemic in terms of ideas like universal basic income, getting traction in a way that we would have never seen earlier.

Jim: Absolutely. I love the idea that we’re pretesting pieces that we might need in a crisis and crises will come. And at least our GameB synthesis is that they’re going to become more and more rapidly, as we head into the limits and the boundary conditions, both of the earth and our cognitive capacity to manage the ever-growing complexity.

Alexa: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. I think, crisis kind of shakes up and ceases to normalize so many of the ways in which we govern and procedurally, we do things in society. And so I think, crisis allows us to take that sort of anthropological eye to our culture and say, and look at it, exotically when too often it does just become normalized. So, I think crisis does breed these moments where we can sort of go exploring further afield and bring in alternative ideas that we wouldn’t necessarily consider when everything is going well.

Jim: People don’t change when they think things are going well. Let’s get back to Damanhur and talk about another dimension, design dimension as I call them. And that’s what I’d call social norms from your article. You say the entire community is governed by a constitution that enables the so-called college of justice, which upholds the values of that constitution. What are some of the things that were in that constitution, if you remember?

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I don’t actually remember the specifics of the constitution, but I know that what was important about it was sort of democratically chosen. And then I think what Damanhur has really allowed is for overcoming that charismatic founder problem, where different people could contribute, in important ways and creating almost like a secondary tier of leadership and roles. So there wasn’t just this dependence on one person. And so I think in that way, it was really successful. So they have these kinds of king, queen roles that become really important, for maintaining the ideals and practices of the community. One of the ideas I love that they do actually is, rather than just let emotions fester, they’ll often use these huge cathartic kind of play fights where the community can get together and resolve challenges through these play fights.

Alexa: I think just having therapeutic practice baked into some of these communities can be really important. Um, and so that felt like, something that was actually developed outside of the vision of the founder to create more of this emotional catharsis for members.

Jim: Yeah. What I liked about it, I call it institution building, the play fight thing actually seems like it was stylized and had a set of rules and things of that. They may have evolved over time, but it sounds like they eventually became sort of stable. I always warn people that building institutions is a good thing, often, not a bad thing. People think of institutions, “Oh my God, they’re these controlling things.” But if we build them ourselves, it makes our lives so much simpler. Because we don’t have to rethink everything every goddam time.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s exhausting about being in a culture in beta, is you’re sort of designing and building everything from the beginning. But once as a community you’ve established some of those cornerstone rituals, I think that’s when culture really begins to set in a bit more. And it isn’t as kind of emotionally exhausting, but you feel like things get ritualized. And not to underestimate that, um, I think that’s something that’s really needed. Friends of mine developed this tool called the Community Canvas. And it’s almost like the business model canvas in terms of being able to think through how you create communities and that’s a huge component of it is what rituals do you design for that community?

Jim: I’d love to have a link to the community canvas. If it’s something that’s out visible in the world.

Alexa: I’ll definitely send it to you. I think for folks even, I just use it as I think about different communities that I’m a part of and how we can make them more resilient and viable. But, there are different ways in which they surface, what are the shared experiences of that community? What are the different roles within this community? What’s the governance structure? How do we talk about this community? What is the underlying kind of financial model of this community? So, if you’re kind of working to sort of create a community, it provides a sort of guided way to think about that.

Jim: Perfect. I mean, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do is what are the dimensions that you need to think about? I’d love to see what other people have done in that space.

Alexa: Yeah. I’ll send you the link after we get off.

Jim: And we’ll include it on the episode page as usual, at, right? Another group you talk about, which is interesting is the Amish. And I have a little family connection there. The Rutts were originally Amish or old order Mennonite, which is very similar, hard to tell exactly what back in 1690. Fortunately our branch had the good sense to get out of that stuff somewhere along the line. Researched them and followed them a little bit. Cause I do think they have some ideas that are worth developing. One that’s kind of a strong end is the Amish practice of shunning essentially rather than having courts, et cetera and police, if you violate the norms in the Amish culture around business deals around social interactions.

Jim: I don’t know what else there might be probably the use of technologies that have been forbidden. You can be shunned by the local subset of the Amish, which is that they basically won’t talk to you, period. I mean, literally. That’s very, very powerful. But of course it can also be subject to all kinds of abuse.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s pretty brutalist. You can see how, when that is the consequence of not obeying kind of certain rules or community etiquette, that, that’s a severe consequence that people would fear enough to follow the rules. To me that feels like more of a kind of 1.0 version of a practice that the Amish have. That’s eons old, but I think there’s some things that the Amish do, that I feel are more relevant to intentional communities that are developing today. One is around their treatment of technology. And so I think there’s been a lot to say that the Amish aren’t necessarily preaching total technological abstinence, but rather that they’re very intentional in terms of the technologies that they take on board. And so when I spent some time in Lancaster, I remember reading Amish newspapers, What really struck me about them is just how boring the newspapers were.

Alexa: They really felt like small town papers from the ’50s that were just updates on kind of weather and announcements about marriages and death. But then also you had these advertisements within the Amish newspapers and the way in which they advertise different technologies. Like a cell phone for example, was based on their “plain features.” And so, cell phones were advertised as not having distracting apps, but rather, just being able to call someone. I think that kind of focus on, well, what is the essence that we need from this technology? At a time when people are facing kind of heavy technological addictions is a bit of a cure all for society today to develop that intentionality around adoption of certain tools and technologies.

Alexa: I know one entrepreneur who was developing kind of manure, in Mexico, who, when he was able to sell this new product to the Amish for him, that was the biggest victory because he knew they would never get behind something that wasn’t really practically useful and tested. And so, I think Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and consumers could learn a lot in being a bit more intentional around that kind of technological adoption piece.

Jim: Yeah. And the broader Mennonite community, which the Amish are a part, they do the same thing, but they do it with more variants. They’re all different, there’s like 250 different denominations of Mennonites, which is quite surprising since there’s less than half a million of them. They’ve essentially explored the design space of technological appropriateness. Some Mennonites don’t allow cars, some do, right. Some allow electricity, some don’t. And they reasoned years about this at the local, a little of a parish level, something like 50 families have talked about each new technology and deliberated about it for years before they made their decision.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I just think it is, as you say, a huge spectrum in terms of what technology is deemed appropriate by different communities. And even within families, I remember staying with one Amish family and they had one, I guess, electric light in their house that they never used, but when their cousins would come and visit, they had it for them. Because, they were more liberal technologically. And so it’s not… I wouldn’t say we want to get into developing kind of really intensive sort of blockers against technology, but just to have some kind of intentional process for actually ask how will this technology affect our sense of wellbeing in our community?

Jim: Yeah. I wouldn’t be opposed to banning cell phones, for instance, I think one could make a strong argument the damn things produce grossly more harm than they do good. I mean, shit. I was a… Even though I helped start one of the cell phone companies one’s called T-Mobile now, I was a very late personal adopter. I used to… Probably as late as 2010, I’d say, “Don’t call me on the cell phone unless you want to talk to my socks in my sock drawer.” And only very late in the day that I get seduced to the damn things. Interestingly, right now I just lost my cell phone in someplace. I don’t know if it’s in my office, in my car or something. I was chatting with my wife and I’m saying, “I’m very tempted just to say, fuck it, not get another one and see what it’s like to live entirely without a cell phone for six months or a year.” And I suspect it’s just fine.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I think you’re seeing this similar kind of counter movement where a lot of Silicon Valley, like tech entrepreneurs are sending their kids to Waldorf and to these schools that are sort of technology free zones, German forest schools, that kind of thing. Because in some ways, they have a distaste for what they developed and what they were part of, just like that. I know whenever I’ve gone cell phone-less, I feel like it imposes more harm and difficulties on the people around me. But yeah, I think this sort of hermit life and that kind of essentialism, I think we’re certainly learning a bit more through the pandemic. What are the essential things that I actually need to get by? Who are the essential people that I need around me? And that kind of thing. So I think there’s a kind of Walden instincts that’s definitely emerging through this crisis.

Jim: Yeah. And of course, it would work a lot better if you’re part of an intentional community of say 150 people who have really strong all day interactions with.

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, and certainly, I think a lot of the sort of prepper communities feel pretty vindicated by the pandemic because they’ve been preparing for this apocalypse for some time.

Jim: And I must confess, I have mild to moderate prepper tendencies. And as I’ve said before on the podcast probably got a small amount of social discredit for the last 30 years. Right? There’s a reason I live on a farm deep in Appalachia. Right? And have generators and fuel tanks and armories and all kinds of other goodies. But I’ll tell you what I’ve been vindicated to hell and returned all that social credit more since the start of the pandemic.

Alexa: Oh, see, you’re exactly one of those. Yeah, no, I mean, I feel jealous. My colleague who’s in West Virginia, they have cell-functioning kind of agriculture system there and not to be able to be as dependent on kind of mass markets that can be pretty disruptive and supply chains that are pretty fragile right now, there’s something to that.

Jim: Yeah. Let’s revisit the Amish one more time and then move on. They have another very interesting custom, which you didn’t mention, which I happen to know about called Rumspringa which is where the teens are given a couple of years to go out into the world and drink and whore and party, or do whatever the hell they want or not. And they don’t all do by any means, do the bad stuff, but they’re all encouraged to leave the community and see the real world for a couple of years. And only after they have done that, do they come back and become confirmed in their churches and become actual members as adults of the Amish community? I think that’s an interesting and brave featured ad into a community like the Amish, an intentional escape valve so that it doesn’t become a self-perpetuating cult.

Alexa: I think it’s super important. And I know the Rumspringa has been a sort of topic of reality TV shows about the Amish, which I’ve found fascinating. But yeah, this opportunity to escape and to leave and to feel that as you come of age within the Amish community, that you have some degree of agency, that you’re not just born into a culture that you have no ability to leave behind or make your own life and destiny. Unfortunately that is also accompanied by a bit of a shunning practice. So if you do choose to leave the community, I think, it’s kind of an exiled experience. But you see young Amish that get to play video games for the first time and dance and just understand a bit more about mass society and modern civilization. And then make a pretty intentional choice.

Jim: A very interesting idea. It strikes me as an example of good faith. The people are sufficiently confident in the values of their society that they’re not trying to, like so many cultish communities do, try to keep people from knowing about the outside world at all. It’s essentially saying, “Go out and look at the outside world and then compare it to what you have here and choose.”

Alexa: Yeah. I mean, I think for intentional communities to have kind of ritualized ways of gracefully exiting, makes a lot of sense. And also for test runs, I know Damanhur has this as well, where people can try out the community for a set period of time, rather than just make a life-binding commitment, which is different than take the nuns example of the Catholic church of when you make your vows. I think it’s really hard in this kind of commitment-phobic age for people to feel like they can make that lifelong commitment to a community. And maybe the future of intentional communities is actually having a few different affiliated belongings with a number of different communities. Right? So the idea that just there’s one sole community that you sort of pledge allegiance to versus, that there’s some overlapping communities that you might be a part of.

Jim: Yeah. In fact, in our prodo B concept, we imagine each prodo B having multiple sites. So if there’s prodo B A it might have 20 sites around the world and people can move from one to the other, to the other and essentially stay within the same social operating system.

Alexa: I think that’s great. And also allowing for a little bit of that cultural variability, for those different sites to have a bit of difference and to be able to create an experience where people can travel and learn. I think that stagnation piece, becomes really important again.

Jim: And back to the Damanhur example, actually that trial period seems like it cuts both ways, right? It allows you the potential member to decide whether this is right for you, but probably at least as importantly, it allows the community to decide if you are right for them.

Alexa: Yeah. 100%. And it makes a lot of sense. Even when I lived in Germany, I know companies, you often are given a life contract when you’re hired. And so companies have to be really careful about who they are hiring. And I think intentional communities, likewise, to have a bit of a filtering process or a commitment process, where you decide if it’s a mutual fit on both sides is just obvious.

Jim: That seems to fit the example that Ran Abramitzky was talking about, that if you don’t have something like that, you’ll have adverse selection for way too many lazy and disturbed people, frankly.

Alexa: Oh yeah. Or I think to your liminal moment comment earlier, people can get caught up in a sort of emotional high or kind of ecstatic feeling upon first joining a humanity. But then in the day-to-day, I think that fades a little bit. And, it has to be a more intentional choice.

Jim: Well, do you have any final thoughts? I think this has been a very interesting conversation, which I think our listeners will find interesting. If you want to hear more about the GameB Movement, check out the GameB group on Facebook. GameB, all one word. Any final thoughts, Alexa?

Alexa: Jim, I’d be super interested in seeing some of what you’re developing in terms of the design that you mentioned with the different prototypes and I can share the Community Canvas. Yeah. And I think for me, this article, I have so many different friends who are part of intentional communities. And so this article was a way for me to gain some historical perspective on these movements, from the past and what we can learn in terms of this new wave of intentional communities for now, but also be a bit intellectually rigorous. And so, sort of, guard against some of the emotions or attractiveness that I might see in these communities.

Alexa: I think it’s important that these communities are in service to a wider public and are these kinds of Petri dishes for our overall culture evolve. And so I really view them in that way and almost would love to be in conversation with more people as a sort of intentional community consultant, which is how we can develop these in more resilient ways.

Jim: Great. Well, I think, we’ll wrap it there. Thank you.

Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at