FLEX’s Founder

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: Macroinformation.org & Knatz.com / Teaching / Society / NoHier / DDD / Modules / “Rants” /

Another word on FLEX’s Founder
(FLEX is of course prerequisite.)

The bulk of Knatz.com is about pk, his life, work, creations, thoughts, but there are two stories not yet worked in anywhere else that belong only here. pk has long been a systems thinker in a society looking only to patch the old system, not design and implement a better. (Therefore all my inferiors are promoted and come to regard themselves as my superiors: in charge of my discipline and correction.)

Architecture is an art of systems and I benefited by having a friend studying architecture as far back as 1957. By the early middle 1960’s other friends were studying the trade. (Read The Model (First Week) and notice that it’s an architects’ story.) The following probably came in association with the second friend’s studies: c. 1961. I heard of an assignment regarding traffic planning, an aspect of city planning. I sat at my mother’s dining table overlooking the brackish Freeport River at a point where eels and seagulls were more common than bluegills, and thought. Here’s what I came up with. I believe you’ll recognize it as early preparation for meeting Fuller, then Illich, then founding FLEX.

If only someone could stop talking: and do something: or try to anyway.
Tarkovsky, The Sacrifice

My other home at that time was on Claremont Avenue at New York’s Morningside Heights. (Yes, it was a long time before I finally left the Columbia environs altogether.) I would come from any one of three buildings I’ve lived in there, walk a short distance to 116th Street, and then a shorter distance up the hill to Broadway where I could descend to the IRT subway: Broadway local trains. The subway had been a nickel. Then a dime, soon fifteen cents … It could have been arranged to be paid for by taxes: paid for by the public, useable by the public: just walk in. I could take the subway to 34th Street: Penn Station. There I could transfer to the Long Island Railroad, visit my mother, and fish for eels, or transfer to the PA RR and head west into the rest of the country. Or I could stay on the subway and bump and rattle to a choice of airports, transfer to the sky, to the other coast, to Paris, to Australia … Of course, I’d have to produce a wallet or a credit card at each of those choices. Unless it were paid for by the public and therefore useable by the public.
Were I still attending Columbia, all I had to do was ignore the subway and continue across Broadway: there: six large square blocks of core campus. The next course I took however was at NYU: Washington Square: immediately south of where 5th Avenue ends among single digit Greenwich Village streets mixing with streets of real names. I could take the subway and walk over from Sheridan Square: or transfer to other lines that came closer still. Or I could just walk from 116th to Washington Square and be walking no further than many a farmer walked to school without thinking anything of it.

People in cities, where everything is within walking distance, have elaborate, interconnecting transportation systems; rural people do not. These days they can walk, trot, bike, auto, or fly wherever unfenced concrete goes. Advantage to those with the money. In New York City the advantage also goes to those with taxi fare, but far less so. Most people had the nickel for the subway even if they couldn’t parley it all the way to Paris.

And I thought of Abraham Lincoln walking to school along wooded Illinois paths. Here’s what I thought would have helped him. Were there bicycles in his youth? Soon. Soon. Bicycles or no, there had long been donkeys, mules, carts, horses, surreys. But let’s stick with “bicycle” for simplicity’s sake. Abe leaves his log cabin just as I left my apartment. He’s not in New York, so the subway (bus station, trolley system, whatever) isn’t just a short way up the hill. Before walking far Abe should come to a bicycle: parked there for whoever next needs it. It’s not Abe’s bicycle, but he’s not stealing it. It’s a public bicycle: his as much as anyone’s. The path through the woods isn’t paved, but doesn’t need to be: let’s say the bike has a sturdy frame and knobby tires. Abe rides the bike to the subway station, trolley, Pony Express … Local finds juncture with Express. Abe leaves the bicycle there for whoever is next in need of it. The Pony Express takes him to the stage coach, the stage coach to the railroad … or to his school, law school, campaign stump, Oval Office.

Meantime his mother returns from the county fair. She finds a bicycle at the subway station and may ride it home. Or walk. Or ask for a piggyback from someone. I should have issued from my apartment building and found a bicycle near by whether I was only walking to the subway or not. I could have pedaled downtown to NYU, playing chicken with the taxis, rather than shaking and rattling aboard the IRT. The choices are myriad. The bikes could be free, but the subway require a token. The bike and subway could be funded by taxes but the LIRR still cost cash on the barrel head. All US transportation could be a public service but you need your checkbook to cross a border.

My ideas cost money, lose money; until they’re stolen. Ah, but then the thieves, reprocessing them till the basic ideas are choked-off, squeezed-out, make billions.

I hope you see the pattern. Of course there are problems with it. The problems are psychological and political, not technical. Let me mention one solvable by cybernetic algorithms first. Each time Abe goes to the Pony Express is not canceled by Mrs. Lincoln coming home from the Pony Express. The bikes will not properly distribute themselves by themselves. No: extra energy and effort has to go into maintaining some idea of proper average distribution. Otherwise a dozen bikes will accumulate one place and there will be none in eleven others. Partly that problem is solved by mere numbers: if distribution points are common, not finding a bike to use at point A still leaves you in hope that you will find one at point B. Of course if there’s an earthquake and everyone has to evacuate, no transport system ever devised will help: capillaries, veins, and arteries will all rapidly clog.

Now I allow for psychological and political problems. My system wouldn’t work in this society because all the public bicycles left unguarded would soon be trashed. A free subway would be vandalized even faster than the $1 or $2 subway. Why is that? Why do people not bother to return library books? Why is it that the commons degrade a thousand times faster than things appropriated for civilized greed? Because civilization actually, routinely, means the opposite of what it pretends to mean: semi-organized barbarism.

Riding the subway, I didn’t give a damn if the Miss Rheingold contestant received a greasepaint mustache. But I mind like hell when some clown has spray-painted the subway map. Have you ever noticed that the same rascal who defaces the map wouldn’t dream of spray-painting his Kilroy or his Leo 203 or Jesus 188 on the windshield of a Mercedes? The Medicare recipient gets mugged, not the fey Michael Jackson with his ridiculous silver jock and glove. But these are not natural values; these values are implicit in the system, learned from the system.

(For one thing, the subway graffiti artist knows that at worst he’ll be arrested by the Transit Authority. Big joke. Defacing the Mercedes, he might get caught by … the owner!)

By the way, that behavior is not peculiar to cities. I now live in what passes for rural in Florida (a field with cows and three thousand trailer people hidden behind it, one little crowned road and no sidewalk serving all of them). My work at the local state park found a work shop with only broken tools. I was told that the state had just spent a great deal of money: a dozen new rakes, hammers, sets of screw drivers … Where were they? Stolen or trashed within hours: from a building theoretically locked by and for the rangers. Anyone would be crazy to leave a bicycle for such people. (Crazy like pk: don’t forget: I offered a technologically feasible salvation to the human world. Now I’m free to mock the world’s rejection of it. My teacher, Jesus, offered a spiritual salvation (that happens also to make a great deal of social sense): he has the rest of time to mock the result. Or ignore it, or forgive it: that’s up to him.)

But what we are is always temporary. Genetic learning is slow (by our standards) but cultural learning is highly transient. We can’t trash the commons forever and still have private property to keep. The slag heap we make will have no non-bacterial population (and the bacteria may see what to avoid next time they spin-off into a few side experiments).

The fastest way to reverse cultural learning would be to take the lesson very seriously. Ignore the kid spraying graffiti on the Mercedes but break every bone in the body of the kid spraying the subway map: on the spot, the eye witnesses: then give him no public medical attention. No judge, no cops, no lawyers, no trial: just break his bones. Let his family heal him. Let his family come after you. There are no safe reforms. Safety is an eidolon we must learn to ignore.
Better yet, reverse time. Start civilization all over again. Don’t allow the majority to become so territorially impoverished. Admiring Michael Jackson’s silver jock is a perversion. (I’m not referring to his stellar dancing: there he is Fred Astaire’s peer: a physical Scott Joplin.) Better yet, don’t allow the majority to become so numerous. It’s excess food that’s the real disease. Too many babies surviving, but with no chance of ever being free or healthy.
I may come back and add more but right now I want to turn to the second story that brought me here today before I forget to include it.


FLEX was a systemic solution. FLEX solved a series of problems of information storage, retrieval, and distribution. Actually, I had thought of something quite similar years before. All my life I’ve thought of stories to tell, stories to write. As a kid, I told them. As a kid I actually had occasional audiences, other kids, their mothers, teachers … Most of the stories thought of never got told or written. Sometimes I suspected that telling those I did contributed to their not getting written. There were of course other factors: laziness, acedia, fear … (I have always, accurately, I believe) feared that success in one thing would steal time from the possibility of success in other things: write a great novel and “they” won’t let you write short stories, dance well, and they won’t let you act, act too well, and they may not let you sing … My success in business obliterated my dedication to FLEX (and to nearly everything else: reading, thinking, and drinking were the only other things I managed to do when I had money: and doing them took a great deal of effort). The business was supposed to finance FLEX. I soon saw that it never would. Success in business breeds only success in business. (So screw success in business.)

Anyway, I now jot an idea for a story I had in the mid 1960s. Sitting at the bar in the West End, I told it to a friend (actually my girl friend’s sister’s friend, Lloyd). Sit-ins were happening. Be-ins were happening. Columbia owned some building on Amsterdam and 112th. Slum-lord Columbia was going to do something with their building: tear it down, give it to St. Luke’s, renovate it … The building turned out to be full of squatters. Columbia treated the squatters the way they would come to treat the students in another few years. There were protests from the College, from Barnard … I don’t remember whether there were actual sit-in protests. Whether there were or not, my story imagined a prolonged sit-in protest.

The protesters occupy the building. The landlord decides to ignore them for a while. Protesters usually get tired and go away. These protesters knew that, were determined not to get bored: had to find a way to make their own life inside the condemned building. Individuals could come and go, bring books, cater the place, but the majority had to stay inside: turn your backs and there’s instant rubble. The squatters can’t stand the students’ stridency and move out. The students won’t give up anyway. What will they do with their time?
Cut to the solution. They all have experience with the library, with card catalogue systems, with some form of cross-referencing. Some librarian type takes charge. “Those who want to be quiet, maybe just read, go over there. The light is best. Those who want to make noise, let’s move upstairs. OK, now. Those who want to get laid, go up to the next flight …”

And so forth. Soon there were refinements. “Look, we don’t really know each other. When I’m with my boy friend, I know what he likes, he knows what I like. But we’re strangers. So fill out slips, say what you want. Give the slips to me, and I’ll match fucking and sucking partners. This guy wants to get blown, but he doesn’t want to eat. I sift through the slips to see if there’s a girl there who wrote “blow job” instead of “fuck and suck,” “fuck,” “69” or just “get my tittie kissed.”

Etc. Lloyd looked at me bright eyed. “don’t write that;” he said, “do it.” Some details were added to the story. I think it was Ron Gross I told about it years later (after founding FLEX) who pointed out that the librarian should organize a “Clap Trap” in another corner of the building.

I had my own wrinkles not yet mentioned. I’ll report only a few. The dykes protest: too heterosexual. The whores hear about it and smash the place: unfair competition. The project doesn’t last long. It falters before funding proposals are ever completed. My title was to have been The First (and Final) (Monthly) Report of the Morningside Heights Neighborhood Free Fuckery.

When Illich wrote of Peer Matching, I’d already thought it out: but merely as a jeux d’esprit, a bit of comic fluff. Illich’s thoughts were serious, at the core, a genuine solution.

So that’s what I did. Not the Neighborhood Free Fuckery; but the Free Learning Exchange.

The dykes didn’t protest, but the whores did.
Note: these decades later I regret my title of Free Learning Exchange. I should have called it FIX from the start: Free Information Exchange. Or I should have left the too ambiguous word “free” out of it altogether.

Denis called his the Learning Exchange. It sure would have helped both of us if we’d been able to connect before titling anything. Both came from Illich Deschooling. So we were both thinking “learning.” But learning is far too limited. How about the Universal Resource and Information Library?

2003 12 31 A little something I’d been thinking of adding here has gone instead into my Society directory as a reflection on Cheating .

Keywords pk, Paul Knatz, FLEX, founder, deschooling, networks

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About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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