Friday, July 20, 2012

The Collaborativist's Cookbook

Note: This post is really just a short, practical version of the previous post. I do think it adds to the conversation though—it connects the failure of government and big business to the need for collaborative solutions, mixes in the idea of "civil society", and gives some practical ideas of how to contribute. Do any of you know of a list of collaborative projects easily accessible on the web? Thx.

Throughout history, humans have banded together to diminish threats to human life and comfort. As simpler threats were largely eliminated (death by other apex predators, exposure to the elements), more complex human organizations arose, eliminating more complex threats. The institutions we currently rely upon to reduce these threats are beginning to fail in their duties.

Currently, the only organizations that are powerful enough on the whole to manage these threats are governments and corporations. While these have managed to produce protection against a litany of long-standing threats, they have begun to fail at tackling very complex threats: global economic collapse, public education in a service economy, and other problems. Though these issues are most often “first world problems”—issues of happiness or social and economic progress that don’t affect those in the developing world, the idea that they are unimportant is deceptive and incorrect.

The system is shot through with mediocrity, and it will not be easily fixed. It’s not even clear right now what a corrected system would look like (although reduced lobby influence in government is almost certainly part of it), or what measures need to be implemented. To wit: fixing society is going to be a long road.

When people realize this, they often get depressed or jaded. It doesn’t need to be that way. Allow me an illustration. Imagine your car has broken down, and for some reason, you need to repair it yourself. You’re hardly a natural-born mechanic (if you are, pretend you’re not), and the problem lies in the engine somewhere. The repair is going to be nasty, and you can’t take time off of work to do it. You’ll be forced to work on the car in the evenings and on weekends, and you still have to figure out how to get around town.

In the long term, you’re going to need to consult manuals, call friends, and work long hours to fix your car. It’s not going to be easy.

In the short term, you’re going to have to solve a more immediate problem—how do you get from point A to point B?

While this seems daunting, you really have to work on both items. Thankfully, in the end you’ll have a car you can use, as well as perhaps a bike, a carpool, a knowledge of the bus routes, and maybe better cardiovascular fitness.

The Long Game

I’m not going to spend much time on this, because you know what to do. Act directly to move government and corporations: voting reform (alternative voting), lobby reform, disclosure, and transparency are the biggest things on the table. Please do these things, however you feel best.

The long game is important, but working in the garage all day is doing nothing for you in re: getting the groceries. Hence, the short game:

The Short Game

This is the part people are afraid of, because it requires immediate and significant changes. Fear not, though, you only have to do stuff you want to do anyway.

The only ironclad rule here is to build collaborative parts of the “civil society”, organizations outside the corporate-political sphere that advance common interests. The reason for this is simple—the broken “system” of government and large moneyed entities provides services generally too slowly, too expensively, or with serious negative side effects. For example, the city comes to take away your trash, and they do it quickly and cheaply, but they don’t do it effectively. No one goes through your trash to see if someone else might like that pretty good TV you’re just throwing away. That’s why there’s freecycle. The new civil society is collaborative, which means it can solve a lot of problems without centralized planning.

There are a LOT of collaborative projects out there, and they chip away at all sorts of problems, from world hunger to finding a couch to crash on. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much time you have, or what limitations you face, you can help something awesome grow...awesomer.

You can be collaborative in a few different ways:

1. Start Something. If you’re finding difficulty in getting something you need in order to be happy, and you can think of a way that a new collaborative movement could fix that, make it your personal project. Find existing online communities to enlist help.

2. Be a Gnome. If you love an existing collaborative project, contribute to it. There’s plenty of organizational, editorial, clerical, publicity, and other work in every project, and there’s usually no barrier to entry. So get crackin’, and make your favorite projects better, a step at a time.

3. Enlist in a Cause. This is more than just going gnome. Become active and visible in an online community or collaborative project. Help plan meetups and hangouts, volunteer at conferences and workshops, and help resolve disputes if necessary.

4. Preach it. Tell your friends about the awesome project that you’re working on. When someone you know complains about a problem that you know has a collaborative solution on the internet (even if you’re not involved in that project), point them to that project.

A Parting Piece of Advice

Keep your Long Game out of your Short Game. That is, if you’re creating and contributing to collaborative societies, you must keep them as open as is reasonable. You don’t want people opting out because they disagree with you politically, religiously, or philosophically. You may think this is bland, or that this is selling out, but major collaborative projects almost universally have rules against bias. And that’s for a good reason.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

New Society Manifesto

Welcoming the advent of the Wiki Wiki World.

Without any significant strain, anyone endowed with a reasonable amount of sense can see the problems that have infested the developed world. Employment is not readily accessible by all who wish to work, parliamentarians and congressmen exclusively represent the interests of moneyed entities including corrupt corporations, and supposed solutions to major social and economic problems drive the populace to tribalism. The current track of Western and other developed societies is unsustainable—but an alternative is arising. This new society should be supported by everyone who wants a better life for themselves and their posterity.

A partial enumeration of the failures and impending failures of the existing system

  • Systems that ostensibly reward intelligence, hard work, and other values are becoming oligarchies run by “those who got there first”. (Christopher Hayes)
  • Representatives and other officials are increasingly beholden to campaign funders, not to their constituents. (Lawrence Lessig)
  • The job is dying.
  • The corporation is also dying. (Venkatesh Rao)
  • Employers increasingly disrespect the 40-hour workweek, expecting and requiring excessive work hours. (Bob Sutton)
  • Viable goods, attention, time, and ideas are increasingly left to waste.
  • The populace is becoming politically tribalized, preventing collaborative political effort.
  • Prices are often unfair, and packaged quantities are being reduced in a deceptive manner. (The Consumerist)
  • Information disseminated by the media is increasingly untrustworthy.
  • Privacy, both off- and online, is eroding. (Rebecca MacKinnon)
  • The economic problems that began in 2008 are not subsiding, no matter what national and international economic policies are implemented.
  • The gap between rich and poor is widening, and the situation for the poor is not improving. (Ezra Klein)

Note that issues like police brutality and civil rights failures are big problems, but are not unique to Western or developed societies. Other problems, like overcrowded, private prisons and healthcare crises, tend to be spotty and focused on few specific places in the developed world (cough cough), but are largely subsets of other large problems listed.

Why popular resistance and social trends will fail to bring change in the developed world

Traditional social movements seem to have sprung out of major concerns (lack of food, oppression by leaders, unsafe conditions, unequal rights) that could be summed up in one statement (Mubarak must go, Votes for women, No taxation without representation). Unfortunately, the problems with the old society are too numerous to attack in one movement. Occupy Wall Street tried this, and did lots of things, none of which actually spurred significant legislative or regime change.

Taking the broken system head on is bound to cause conflicts between people who would otherwise be able to work together, as we all focus on our hobby horse issues at the expense of other important concerns. The protection provided by pitting these conflicting forces against each other may not be an intentional aspect of the monolithic old culture, but it sure confers a devilish evolutionary advantage to this particularly mutated parasite.

The heart of old society is the idea that resources are scarce, traditional hierarchies are inevitable, and the ability to compete with other humans for resources is “merit”. It is the home of Glengarry Glen Ross, Gordon Gekko’s Wall Street, and the Godfather. It is Darwinism writ large, where pincers and scales are replaced by schemes, prestige, and privilege. It is inevitable that such a system will degrade into a great-ape-style hierarchy, where alphas enforce class distinctions by force, regardless of their actual abilities.

The task of defeating primate behavior in order to provide human groups safety and progression opportunities has traditionally been handled by governments. The development of large governments appears to have been instrumental in the formation of modern technologies (formerly things like aqueducts; in our era, the space program and the Internet), but such governments have been prone to catastrophic failure, or at the very least, wide-scale corruption.

Governments are represented by people: presidents, judges, legislators, etc. When a government becomes systemically corrupt, revolution is the only solution, because removing the figurehead does not effect real change. Revolutions are hard; they require conditions to be very unpleasant for a very large group of people, because making a transition often involves a risk to one’s life, and a risk that the new system will be worse than the old. The corporate version of revolution—restructuring—is far more common, but often fails to bring real change to business cultures and practices.

It is unlikely that any government or corporation in the West will make life too difficult for a significant group of its citizens or clients, but that does not mean that Western style governance is optimal. It is the foundational principle of a New Collaborative Society that there are better ways to do nearly everything that governments and corporations do—finding them just requires a bit of experimentation.

The role of networked electronic communication in forming a Collaborative Society

Until humans had a way of communicating, society was impossible. Language was a necessary (and perhaps sufficient) condition for banding together, building together, and protecting each other in new ways that ultimately led to human domination of Earth. Each new advance in communication has brought with it massive changes to society in general—there’s a reason we call that time before the development of writing “prehistory”. The printing press led to multiple societal revolutions, and certainly there could be no modern corporation without the telephone.

The internet has been so revolutionary—more so, perhaps, than the telephone or even the printing press—that we still do not know what the end result of its development will be. We have seen some strange and scattered effects: the rise of social media, the Arab Spring, online commerce, and distributed work and communities. We do not know what will come next, but it is wise not to ignore the strong possibility that nearly all of our existing ways of life will have changed completely by 2100. It is important that we guide that change as well as we can.

Cory Doctorow identified the “disorganized but effective” nature of online movements (they obviously can’t be called “organizations”, but “movement” or “adhocracy” works), and posited that as the cost of human transaction drops, the wiki approach might be used to plan cities, perform scientific inquiry, and explore space. This would constitute a massive human revolution, as the tasks normally reserved for governments or large corporations could be performed by people en masse, without commitment to a permanent hierarchy.

A warning about thinking on this line: it is likely to disappoint in the near future, as much of the Western world is divided between those who trust in governments and those who trust in corporations, a false choice of epic proportions. As long as those institutions have the most fans, they have power. (One can see in the world of Indiegogo, Twitter, and YouTube that having fans is essentially equivalent to having power.)

Thus, the role of the conscientious believer in a New Collaborative Society must become that of an evangelist, but a smart one. We all know auto-shills, trying to push their own blogs, music, or books onto others. The new society must preach by practicing: show the world that eschewing the hidebound universe of the old is both easy and effective. Even if the portion of the New Collaborative Society being practiced is something of a “minimal viable product”. Baby steps are better than no steps, and in the information age, those strides can increase in length exponentially.

The current state of the New Collaborative Society and its characteristics

The early effects of the Internet, meaning those that are visible now and those that are peeking around the corner at us, are sparse and sometimes inscrutable. Innovations seem to crawl in some areas and leap in others, and culture appears and disappears without much notice. (Anyone here remember Homestar Runner?) This porousness and sporadic growth translates to inconsistencies in the current iteration of the New Collaborative Society: a loose but expanding collection of practices that replace traditional institutions by disruption. As an alpha release, there’s not enough here to convince the masses to abandon decaying lifestyles for these ones.

That’s not to say that nothing has been done, however. While New Collaborative Society may be in the infant stage, it’s a whale calf, not a puppy. Early adopters have propped up projects as varied as Wikipedia and the Arab Spring, from Occupy to the Open Source movement. Deciding what forms part of the New Collaborative Society can be a little tricky—do farmers’ co-ops count or not?

By definition, any component of New Collaborative Society should be a replacement for a part of Old Society that is headed toward, or already experiencing, systemic failure. This seems fairly limited and specific, but when one examines the long term, much of Old Society appears to be balancing at the edge of a frighteningly precipitous drop, and thus open for New Collaborative Society replacements. The following are trends I believe to be parts of this change, but note that one does not have to buy into each New Collaborative Society institution in order to be supportive of New Collaborative Society as a whole:

Table A - some trends that appear to form part of the New Collaborative Society

It’s clear that the drive of the current trends tends toward direct action on the market to shift small pieces away from scarcity-driven models to post-scarcity, abundance-driven ones. Beyond that, existing New Collaborative Society trends also show a movement away from complex bureaucratic administration, toward more spontaneously-organized and disorganized administration.

Missing components of a New Collaborative Society and possible solutions

The most powerful elements of society, central governments and large corporations, have few competitors in any sphere, much less rivals that actually threaten their dominance on more than one front. New Collaborative Society solutions generally work in terms of disruption and replacement rather than stepwise progression and slow change. It will be difficult to disrupt technologies like federal governments and multinational corporations because of their powerbases and pocketbooks.

Education is another area in which New Collaborative Society solutions have as yet failed to resolve some concerns. Post-secondary education is still inappropriately expensive, and degrees are not insurance policies on unemployment.

Further, there are areas with some New Collaborative Society solutions which are incomplete or incompletely applied (e.g. transportation, staple foods, child care). These areas still stand to be disrupted or replaced. Problems in these areas are real, and action must be taken to resolve them. We should be grateful that there are ideas in motion to resolve these issues, and join with the people engaged in solving them if we feel the need, but it seems very likely that solutions to even large problems of distribution are forthcoming.

The problems in education are more complex. While there are groups in existence leveraging the surplus in educational content, the issue lies in the matter of accreditation and degree-granting. Like money, educational certificates only have value based on the approval of an institution, and the system bases its awards on an educational facility’s ability to approximate an Old Society model. This will be difficult to overthrow, as it will require a New Collaborative Society organization to prove itself to Old Society institutions (either accreditation groups or employers themselves).

Governments and corporations are very unlikely to see the benefits of current New Collaborative Society organizations with regard to their operational tasks. Currently, however, governments are finding the costs of performing certain tasks, like operating prisons (in the US) and managing security, much too high. Private contractors are hired to do these jobs, but these in turn exacerbate ethical problems—monetizing human suffering seems unlikely to yield any good results.

Relief from sub-national entities as the state, Home Nation, county, province, départment, or canton seems very unlikely. Some of these (US State, Home Nation) have “nation envy” and tend toward the same entrenchment of Old Society’s scarcity-obsessed norms as their parents. Other sub-nationals lack autonomy or authority to do any sort of governing whatsoever. Converting a sub-national to the New Collaborative Society cause is unlikely at best.

It may be possible to convince a small national or sub-national entity to contract some of its responsibilities to New Collaborative Society organizations, but it’s quite likely that governance is something that will have to be endured rather than embraced by the New Collaborative Society for the time being. Engagement is the key—voting always for those laws that will allow for the disruption and replacement of failing institutions, and against laws that further expand and entrench said institutions.

A call to action

The task for anyone interested in effecting Carnegie’s “real and permanent good” in the digital age will be to embrace, live, and spread the New Collaborative Society. This means to engage not only in collaborative projects that immediately interest and concern you, but to identify others that could interest and concern you, to create new collaborative projects and movements, and to connect those seeking solutions to collaborative projects that meet their needs, especially if they’re currently frustrated with the scarcity-based institutions that are failing them.

Interested parties can consistently strive to solve problems by creating collaborative projects that disrupt and replace old institutions. If collaboration supporters use demonstration, protest, and other forms of reactive behavior only when absolutely necessary, possible opponents to New Society norms will find no legitimate grounds for their opposition.

With very very few exceptions, all collaborative projects should be open to any and all parties who have the skills and desire to help. Inasmuch as collaborative projects avoid seeking to ally themselves with a political, religious, cultural, or ethnic group, party, or sect exclusively, they can avoid harmful labeling and other damages that frequently arise in the tribalized world.

The New Collaborative Society should, and will, succeed at creating a new human universe full of peace, opportunity, and abundance.