The Number 1 Challenge for Humanity - Cooperating at Scale, Part 2
Part 2 of 2.
In the first of this two-part blog post I described why cooperating-at-scale is humanity's primary challenge. Here I outline some candidate concepts and pre-architectural principles to inform the necessary and sufficient 'sociotechnological primitives'.
First I'd like to qualify pre-architectural. It's not oxymoronic despite arche meaning origin or beginning. Both physical and software architecture originate structure and structural relationships, and we're not yet at the stage to prescribe such things. Structure is ossified pattern and our purpose at this early stage demands instead that we offer just a little structure to open up the space to explore and nurture multiple patterns in preparation for the emergence of multiple structural forms. If pre-architectural doesn't do it for you, then perhaps think of it as a parsimony of design.
A means to our purpose is the encouragement of multi-disciplinary cooperation towards ever-improving multi-disciplinary cooperation. At scale.
Nuclear physicists refer to the smallest amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction as the critical mass. No-one can know the variety or volume or patterns or structures of the methods, materials and mindsets required to constitute a critical mass for cooperation-at-scale, but perhaps your spidey senses are similar to our own ... maybe, just maybe, assembling such critical mass is a possibility nearer, rather than further away.
Here is an incomplete list of ideas and concepts that could well be in the mix. At least they're at the forefront of AKASHA's collective mind, a mind we're very much hoping to hook up to yours and your collectives' in the not too distant.
Both trust and trustlessness
The AKASHA team is excited to be working to combine the best of Web 3.0 wizardry and the best of human nature, nurturing and relying on the latter where we can and as we should, and crafting the former as and when scale demands.
Consensus protocols are predicated on either the absence of trust or a contextual advantage of not having to establish it. Nevertheless, trust — the act of making oneself vulnerable to another — is integral to human relationships and community cohesion, and that has not and will not change.
The sociologist Niklas Luhmann put it plainly [Trust and Power, 1979]:
A complete absence of trust would prevent [one] even getting up in the morning.
Not exactly the outcome we're working towards here!
💡 For more on trust and trustworthiness we recommend Onora O'Neill's A Question of Trust (also available as a book).
The viable systems model (VSM)
Developed by cybernetician Stafford Beer, the VSM represents an organizing structure capable of (re)producing itself, of being viable in / adaptable to the changing environment. It is useful to both analysis and synthesis.
Beer describes the isomorphic quality of the VSM, effectively its recursive nature — multiple viable systems constitute a viable system and so on ad infinitum. So a group of people might constitute a VSM with any one person fulfilling a System 1 role for example, but of course that person herself constitutes a VSM.
The model is inspired by the brain and nervous system and consists of five types of system. Systems 1, 2, and 3 are analogous to the autonomic nervous system. System 4 encompasses cognition and conversation. And System 5 relates to the higher brain functions involved in reflection and decision making.
💡 For more on the VSM we recommend Raul Espejo's The Viable Systems Model: A Briefing About Organisational Structure.
Sociocracy (aka dynamic governance)
Conflict and passivity lie either side of sociocracy's goal. It's a form of governance that welcomes and accommodates dissensus rather than consensus in pursuit of productive and valuable outcomes.
Teams (known as circles) have autonomy with the consent of the wider organization. A hierarchy of people is replaced by a hierarchy of roles, and the organizational structure is forever poised to adapt as needed, per VSM. Similarly, the structure has a recursive nature — circles of circles, circles within circles. You might call it holonic or fractal, and it serves to afford scale without needing to scale the disadvantageous aspects of bureaucracy.
💡 For more on sociocracy we recommend this introduction by Ted Rau.
Here is how Nathan Schneider introduces the topic:
"The disappointments of the online economy – for instance, user surveillance and systemic labor abuses – stem at least in part from its failures to meaningfully share ownership and governance with relevant stakeholders. Under the banner of ‘platform cooperativism’, an emerging network of cooperative developers, entrepreneurs, labor organizers and scholars is developing an economic ecosystem that seeks to align the ownership and governance of enterprises with the people whose lives are most affected by them. This represents a radical critique of the existing online economy, but it’s also a field of experimentation for alternative forms of ownership design."
💡 For more on platform cooperativism we recommend Ours to Hack and to Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, a New Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet.
💡 For an exploration of sociocracy meeting platform cooperativism, check out Ted Rau again, Platform co-op governance: deep democracy on scale.
Context and warm data
Context matters, as Gregory Bateson noted:
"There is a gulf between context and message (or between metamessage and message) which is of the same nature as the gulf between a thing and the word or sign that stands for it, or between the members of a class and the name of the class. The context (or metamessage) classifies the message, but can never meet it on equal terms."
Essentially, "without context, there is no communication."
Our information technology is well suited to messages, and considerably less suited to conveying context, let alone the metacontext of the sender or recipient of the message. No-one would ever claim this facility of a so-called smart contract and yet it is integral to human relations. Bateson's daughter Nora explains why this is critical in our context here:
"Information that does not take into account the full scope of interrelationality in a system is likely to inspire misguided decision-making, which compounds already “wicked” problems. Warm Data is not meant to replace or in any way diminish other data, but rather it is meant to keep data of certain sorts “warm" — with a nest of relations intact."
💡 For more on warm data we recommend the International Bateson Institute.
Patterning and autopoiesis
You're good at patterns, as Jeremy Lent explains:
"Through the capabilities of our pre-frontal cortex, our species has evolved a patterning instinct ... It deserves to be called an instinct because it emerges in human behavior at the earliest stages of development, well before any cultural learning has taken place. ... This human instinct for patterning is embedded in our cognition, maintaining its activity throughout our lives."
Our work should never ignore let alone erode this capability, but might in fact seek to amplify it. Imagine for example if more individuals could see the pattern that manifests as their so-called carbon footprint.
Fritjof Capra explains the pattern of organization of any system as the configuration of relationships among the system's components that determines the system's essential characteristics. You immediately appreciate the pattern that constitutes a bicycle for example, without contemplating the physical structure of a specific bike. All bikes have the same pattern and every bike has a unique structure.
Autopoiesis — literally "self-making" — links the pattern of organization and structure with the process of embodiment in describing living systems. The facilities for pattern-making, pattern recognition and sensing, and for autopoiesis, are all front and centre in any ambition to cooperate-at-scale.
💡 For more on patterning we recommend Jeremy Lent's The Patterning Instinct.
💡 For more on autopoiesis, and much more, we recommend Fritjof Capra's The Systems View of Life.
Community informatics design seeks practical solutions to complicated and complex socio-technical challenges. It is necessarily transdisciplinary, encompassing social and human aspects, life sciences, behavioural science, organizational structures, systems design, management, ethics, aesthetics, etc.
The following diagram portrays eight phases of patterns to be considered.
Toward a discovery and strategic alignment matrices for socio-technical systems' design, Pierre-Léonard Harvey, 2017
💡 For more on community informatics we recommend Michael Gurstein's What is community informatics, and why does it matter?
Developing patterns of organization
Where should we focus our attention if we wish to see structures emerging that better support cooperation-at-scale? How might we offer up improved patterns? How might we qualify them as improved at all?
In leading work on these questions at the Digital Life Collective, Joachim Stroh maps out a territory:
Elinor Ostrom defined a set of principles that apply to the governance of so-called common-pool resources — those resources that are non-excludable (it's impossible to exclude anyone from consuming the resource) and that feature subtractability of use (akin to rivalrous, where my use reduces your potential use).
The facilities to enhance cooperation should be available to all, so non-excludability is right up our street. While many of the objects of cooperation will feature subtractability — see the Sustainable Development Goals — the facility for cooperation itself should be non-rivalrous if not anti-rivalrous. In other words, my use of the facility increases the potential for and value of your use, and vice versa.
💡 For more on the Ostrom principles we recommend Jeff Emmett's introduction in the context of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO)
We've been working towards our purpose for some time, considering the expression and combination of elementary components of community governance as Lego™ bricks perhaps, or more accurately interactive bricks. We've recognised those patterns of community and societal organization we might wish to propagate (e.g. sociocracy) and, in the spirit of Buckminster Fuller, we're also tantalized by the potential for these components to be assembled in unprecedented combination to build new models that make existing ones obsolete.
And then we stumbled upon the modular politics vision articulated this year and drawing on Elinor Ostrom's Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework. The vision describes "a strategy ... specifying basic features of a generalizable paradigm for online governance ... enabling platform operators and their users to build bottom-up governance processes from computational components that are modular, highly versatile in their expressiveness, portable from one context to the another, and interoperable across platforms."
(Note: per the section above on context and warm data, portability between contexts does not imply equivalence of meaning or effect from one context to another.)
💡 For more on Modular Politics see Modular Politics: Toward a Governance Layer for Online Communities, Primavera De Filippi et al, 2020
Identity is something that sets the individual and the group apart from other individuals and groups ("show me your ID"). It is also something individuals have in common, a similarity, a shared context ("I identify as ...").
The dynamics of identity work to differentiate and homologize at all scales of organizing, recursively. Identity is then a critical aspect of all organizing, of all cooperation, and yet the work to date on "digital identity" has been incredibly narrow, mono-conceptual, and focused very much on repeatable and reliable authentication by a computer system. This is not only inadequate when taken to cover all conceptualizations of identity, it is dangerous. It does not serve our psychology, sociology, or ecology well.
💡 For more on identity we recommend our own Generative identity — beyond self-sovereignty.
The concept of "personal data" is elucidated in law, most notably perhaps the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). However, very many people conflate the legal definition for the real thing — it's a very common mistake to make. On the contrary, in the vast majority of instances the real thing turns out to be interpersonal data i.e. describing or relating to a relationship between two or more persons (including legal persons, aka companies).
This is as deeply concerning for cooperation as identity, and that's because identity, relationships, and interpersonal data are co-constitutive and reciprocally defining.
Next time you hear someone refer to personal data, or "my data," ask them to name some specifically and then you can respond by listing the other parties necessarily involved (even if their context is entirely distinct). The phrase "my data" conveys a declaration of ownership as well as connoting "data about me." There is no property to be owned here, let alone any singular claim over it. On the other hand "data about me" remains a valid concern for cooperating-at-scale.
💡 For more on interpersonal data we recommend our own The interpersonal data at the heart of all human digital systems, including markets.