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    The Evolution of Consensus
    Project: Polytopia

    The past month had the great pleasure to condense time and networks.
    Initially at Contactcon2011 with its important statement – the evolution will be social – where Polytopia was among the projects presented at the Bazaar; and then at the Metacurrency Collabathon weekend, where I was introduced to the brilliant work on re-conceptualization of value and currencies; the last days in New York could meet some of the participants in #OWS, and all the way through I enjoyed dearly the stimulating presence of polytopian fellows and friends.

    The reason I am mentioning this is because the sense of tangibility pushed to the front is one worth sharing. There is plenty of fresh, brilliant work going on in social re-engineering, emerging with technology and through people & technology. It is quite all over and resonating.

    I came back with a landscape of reflections which am trying to cohere here, under this title, together with questions aggregating for a while in the individual collective discussion. Notwithstanding the serious obstacles that we face as societies, a view of bridges forward from the current incongruence is becoming available. Good messages are always worthwhile communicating, if one can cohere them that is.

    To the point of this paper, our attitude to Consensus is an intriguing part in my eyes of the incongruence of last century, and carrying very fundamental questions in our way from here. We see it emerging whenever we re-consider our procedures for action, for actuation, for decision making in pressing contexts, or when we question how free are we to consciously explore and engineer said procedures.

    We have a multivalent relation with consensus; history is punctuated by the endeavor of both communities and individuals to either achieve it or to break it.

    "Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conception that the earth remains at rest in the middle of the heavens as its center, would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the earth moves." Nicolaus Copernicus

    We know the negative connotation of consensus when perceived as status quo (open to power influences), as mainstream normative and narrow judgment, as delimiting factor of any unique leap of intelligence.

    We know the defeating option of a declared obligation for consensus resulting in the paralysis of action. And with it we begin to realize the challenging necessity of beholding, computing and articulating diversity.

    We clearly experience the worth of consensus building through the collective effort to bridge ideas into actuation. Never so much so as in the last thirty years, while advanced possibilities for communications are burning threshold after threshold in connecting networks.

    "We have these moments of noncapitalist, noncoercive, nonhierarchical interaction in our lives constantly, and these are the times when we most enjoy the company of others, when we get the most out of other people; but somehow it doesn’t occur to us to demand that our society work this way." CrimethInc

    I think we reside in a junction in which the discussion has to be reframed. There are so many significant changes already at play, and examples in front of our eyes, that we can get rid of at least some of the ghosts left in the closet of our cultural trail, and open a new view. We need a new and updated articulation of consensus, the advantages that it brings and how can we use it.

    On the necessity: A necessarily non-trivial Future

    Few words on why I think we cannot afford to dismiss the question of consensus, especially not upon cultural misperceptions.

    We are by now a highly manipulative specie, influencing with our actions larger and larger scopes of the world we cohabit, of our future and of each other. The realization of our entrance into the ‘Antropocene Era’ makes visible and clarifies a further dimension to the process of decision making, namely we have to re-ask:

    Which are the most advanced configurations and processes that we have at our disposal to sustain the necessary level of intelligence we need to compute our actions, within the wide (complex) systems we became part of?

    Expounded in few points:

    • * What are the best approximations to keep in view a wide enough and updated enough picture while performing decisions that influence?

      * Which type of processes can provide continuously monitored feed backs while on a course of action?

      * Which configurations of perception allow correction or at least awareness of the ever present blind spots and biases?

      * Most importantly how do we decide / compute our dynamically adjusting landscape of values (what is a benefit and what isn’t and to whom)?

      * And of course how do we build resiliency into our processes/procedures (that they wont collapse at the first obstacle)?

    Being able to answer versions of these questions is probably the task to our future, more than any quest for truth or moral rightness. We need to reconsider our processes of ‘coming to’ – sight, decision-making, actuation – and value their worth in this light.

    Some say that insightful and expert representatives in wide democracies are still our best option, others say that till super intelligent AI rise we’ve got little to do to answer properly this kind of questions. In my eyes a different and interesting option is becoming available at the table of our future, trying to glimpse into it is the purpose of this paper.

    What has changed

    The following are some of the problematic aspects generally raised while tackling the question of consensus - some from a past most interesting conversation with Spaceweaver. Here am addressing each one of them pointing at the way new factors profoundly changed the landscape, yielding to the emergence of non trivial solutions:

    1) the many we are:

    Looking at our global and crowded world, it is easy to see that confronting our daily sense making we are good at translating in our mind “few individuals” to clear signal, while “many voices” or “chaotic masses” translate to noise, the only way we read “many” as availability is when numbers are counting (votes, size, protests, sales). Hierarchy (of representatives) in this sense clearly emerges as a solution to lacking capacity of managing growing numbers of interactions.

    This is though in radical change. As expounded compellingly by Clay Shirky, for ex in this interesting talk, technological solutions as email, wikis and social networks are changing our capacity for multiple communication and collaboration. In person, the growing number of participants in a group explodes the necessary number of interrelations provoking an early limit of management, yet new platforms allowing many to many communications are facilitating everyday completely different scales of interaction, promoting, when relevant, incredibly simple scalability “from sharing - to conversation - to collaboration - to synchronization for collective action”.

    The first impressive example we all know is Wikipedia.

    Wikipedia has been one of the first projects on this scale to use and develop the policy of consensus as its “fundamental model for editorial decision-making” –have a look here for a thorough elaboration of wikipedia consensus. Since its creation in 2001, the refinement of simple rules, together with a collaborative platform (wiki), allowed a free, voluntary, unremunerated, collaborative process of thousands of virtual strangers to create the widest and most up to date dynamically adjusting repository of collective knowledge ever – “more than 82,000 active contributors working on more than 19,000,000 articles in more than 270 languages” in 10 years.

    The massive collective endeavor of Wikipedia has provided a critical mass to the process transforming knowledge, in its premises, from being a locally concentrate scarcely accessible resource, to being a collective, resilient, self-adjusting flow of shared production with high distribution and accessibility.

    The second striking example are the General Assemblies multiplying almost epidemically through the streets and squares of our towns.

    A clear proposition that the effects of connectivity are stepping out of the web, carrying with them new and potent implementations of consensus. In the last six months, this allowed hundreds of thousands of citizens to reclaim public spaces in more than 1000 cities in 80 different countries.

    And for who objects actual possibilities for crowd political capacity, the late efforts of Iceland citizens to crowd source their constitution is a first.

    2) Multiple kinds of non-visible consensus:

    We have more than one “kind” of active “consensus” - and we hardly manage to turn it into an advantage. For example money (and “money as speech”) became in our society no less critical than democratic processes, and often a more significant one. We are factually developing our future wherever money is present to finance, be it science, education, government or production, and it is easy to see how money and votes are not necessarily coupled. We are prey to a lack of coherency between the futures we wish to project and the way living is expressed through money.

    And yet, this very lack of coherency is attracting brilliant initiatives in the reconsideration of our systems of values and ways to translate them into alternative currencies, and am here but touching it. I was very impressed in the past weeks by the research and development put forward by the Metacurrency Project, which is extending these very days its collective efforts (enjoy their clear short Prezi).

    I love the idea i was introduced to of reclaiming currencies as tools to make the flowing of value among us visible. Together with the open re-conceptualization of what we consider of worth, they say, it can facilitate the further creation of shared platforms to allow visibility and transaction of value, beyond the layer which we are currently able to “monetize”.

    We may soon cherish values which are today unarticulated and thus invisible – the growing of a
    healthy child, the care to a dignified death, the growth of animals without inherent cruelty, the enrichment of a place, a land, a community a shared resource – as visible flows of information. This could open the possibility for needs in our communities to be met in multiple and healthy ways, and would give us clear access to multiple currencies each upholding different set of values – thus applied worldviews and not corporate geography may be the playing theme of our pockets.

    The phenomena of alternative currencies and alternative economies are already quite distributed. It is probably a matter of time and critical mass, till we may have a full new language to express this now invisible but powerful consensus.

    A short and well done video introducing collaborative consumption.

    Collaborative Consumption from NESTA UK on Vimeo.

    3) Perceptive biases and blind spots in consensus:

    How do we recognize arising of order – thus how do we amplify it.
    We carry a historical bias of pointing out localities over pointing out complex dynamics
    . History is an excellent example. It is easier to project upon the individual (hero) extra-ordinary qualities, talents and integrity (or for that matter blame) than upon complex dynamics of collective interaction.

    When saying Rome, the high probability is that my mind is attracted to Julius Ceasar instead of the many obscure characters of the Roman Repubblica. Though it is the 500 hundred years of the Repubblica that still influence most of our political institutions and civil organization. Recalling Julius Caesar is my way to eliminate noise in a feeble signal - do not know enough about history to hold a strong complex signal, but the hero and its drama prints itself in my memory.

    Isn’t this what the media went after when approaching each main town protest of the last 6 month and inevitably broadcasting “they do not have a leader, they do not have a clear request, what are they doing?”

    excerpt from “los Indignados” :

    We’re feeling, observing, thinking, listening, talking, proposing, discussing, cooperating, learning, networking, communicating, attempting to understand one another, working, building…
    We’re fighting… to change an unfair system, we’re questioning its laws, its methods for participation and economic systems and we´re proposing specific and feasible alternatives. Our aim is to improve life on this planet for all its inhabitants.
    We’re creating… human and digital networks that give rise to new forms of collective knowledge, honing our increasingly effective analytical skills and furthering our joint decision-making mechanisms. We’re the world’s collective intelligence, in the process of organisation.
    We’re developing… new ways to organise, interact and live. We’re combating the stasis induced by the system and pursuing ongoing development and improvement, active participation, reflection and analysis, decision and action.

    from Occupy Wall Street:
    First and foremost, we are calling upon ourselves, and upon one another, to wake up and employ our power as citizens: to participate rather than observe, to raise our strong voices together, rather than complaining feebly in isolation… We must take responsibility for our own futures – and here at Liberty Plaza, that is exactly what we are doing, by modeling the kind of society in which everyone has a right to live.

    Hyperconnectivity provides completely new corridors for cohering, capturing and synthesizing, a multiplicity of agents and platforms are actually quite a force in bringing different patterns to the level of visibility. We have seen clearly in the events of last years, whether political or scientific, how the growing networks of curation and propagation of content is changing the exposure and perception of “news”.
    Twitter, youtube, facebook, Delicious, Tumblr and many, many others. Not to deny the occurrence of filter bubbles, but if enough voices are out there, thanks to technology and connectivity this is an antidote to personal and group biases, not a reinforcement of the status quo.

    A second good example, articulating the new perceptive ability extracted from complex dynamics, is the growing number of projects that thanks to mobile technology are beginning to harvest the advantage of having autonomous agents spread on a territory consensually sampling data and integrating it into streaming information in real time. See for example Noisetube short video showing how they use personal smartphones around town to measure and integrate on a map noise pollution levels in neighborhoods.

    4) Instability of drive and contribution:

    A fundamental dimension of our relation with consensus; it is not only the decision making procedures, and the sight building process that we seek, it is the emerging shape of “drive to action” - both at the level of free agents (personal commitment) and the level of the overall collective efforts (distributed engagement), which we know we need to see through in an interesting and innovative enough fashion.

    "Not cohabitation but consensus constitutes marriage." Cicero

    Most of the existing institutions around us, from governments to companies to educational institutions and the organizational models of reward they embody (self interest, incentives, authority, judgments etc.) are today very poor solutions to this particular requirement. They do not come even near inspiring the level of engagement met in independent entrepreneurs and communities.

    "The secret we seek is what inspires humans to act positively and creatively in the face of huge challenges. This is its greatest challenge: How do we elicit the kind of collective and individual action and creativity that will be needed?" Angus Wright

    Yet again, studies specifically in this area show that the personal drive and ability we invest in projects has very little to do with direct remuneration and much to do with social fabric and the pleasure we find in collaboration.

    Again, one does not need to go very far for examples, the amazing transformation in ownership and copyrights happening for a few decades now, expanding from the software world to almost all others, is an undeniable examples of a different paradigm of personal and group drive to achieve state of the art accomplishments.

    From the initial GNU manifesto: (Richard Stallman 1985)
    “I consider that the Golden Rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it.(…) The fundamental act of friendship among programmers is the sharing of programs; marketing arrangements now typically used essentially forbid programmers to treat others as friends. (…) GNU serves as an example to inspire and a banner to rally others to join us in sharing. This can give us a feeling of harmony which is impossible if we use software that is not free. For about half the programmers I talk to, this is an important happiness that money cannot replace.(…) It means that much wasteful duplication of system programming effort will be avoided. This effort can go instead into advancing the state of the art.”

    Linux and the Open Source paradigm went from what was considered a marginalized trajectory to heavy mainstream. Without entering in depth (wish someone with the necessary knowledge would do it) just consider this parameter:

    Linux adoption by Governments (Wikipedia – 20/11/11) begun in 2003 with the town of Munich. The list is steadily growing since, crossing over differences of culture, economy and national policies. Till 2010 it included among others Venezuela, Malaysia, Peru, Massachusetts, Brazil, Ecuador, the US White House, The National France Police and the government of Jordan.

    Important tools are in development to help us track contribution in digital collaborations, this project caught my attention at Contactcon:

    PieTrust is an "open company" developing a secure reputation system for sharing credit. Our system can be used to help projects reward contributors, to allow people to rate each others' skills on social networks, or as a reputation system that can be integrated into other websites.

    Con-Sensus ** A few reflections.

    Con-sensus from latin means sensing together, which captures both the experiential aspect of a “perception which is collective”, and the aspect of “creating, building sense together”.

    In my mind (and I guess not only) this resonates with the possibility to use the process of consensus in order to perceive a bigger picture, aggregating more data in real time for example, while setting the context within the social connectivity. It also resonates with the capacity, through consensus, to cohere a new narrative, containing within it as well an intelligent procedure for decision making.

    We have to release the image of consensus as minimum common denominator and to allow it to grow into the set of processes of harvesting distributed intelligence and capabilities, while leaving space to articulate relevant and multiple paths for exploration.

    From the shareable blog on OWS:
    The Occupy network is a set of experiments, of socio-economic-political experiments in many different locales. Each locale can test out different techniques, ideas, and facilitation processes. The best practices can then spread to other locales or nodes, The whole nodal network is thus tapping into its distributed collective intelligence to evolve new forms of socio-economic-political systems that are more horizontal, self-organizing, participatory, democratic, and sharing based.

    There is a strengthening link between all what elaborated above and what we begin to recognize and study as Collective Intelligence. Processes of consensus bring a surplus in the ignition of CI.

    CI can be used to describe the operation of a group of agents (swarm theory) when the agents can be considered autonomous and responsible in their local choices. This means that the tendency of agents to automatically uniform each other actions is low – thus a fundamental difference between consensus as elicited in this paper and uniformity of masses.
    Maybe this is a part of the heritage we take from the past century of individualism, the ability to sustain long enough autonomous paths of exploration and articulation, if we can now insert them within a sane fabric of social connectivity, which is kept under fluid watch by continuous iteration.

    A working definition of Consensus might begin with “the capacity, facilitated by language and connectivity, to initiate co-participation in the rise and propagation of a pattern – thus an open network of influence”. And it continues into” the set of processes merging collaborative efforts and technological platforms to bring an arising pattern to relevant articulation and decision making. Making use of the resulting synchronization to extend the available contexts of perception”.

    To be clear, I am not proposing the answer to what does this means, how it looks or what is the right way to do it, I am pointing though to a direction which is in my eyes acquiring interest and momentum, enough to be considered a relevant player in our futures.

    Given connectivity, disposition (in terms of attitude) and drive, we do not always need an extrinsic "ideal" under which to group ourselves in order to achieve effectiveness in something, we also do not necessarily need emotionally disconnected extreme factions in order to develop multiple opinions.

    A process allowing the spontaneous sustained building of con-sensus may provide a relevant raft of reference, while knowing that what we do need, and are busy with, is re-tooling for direction.

    will add in coming days some further readings, your thoughts would be much appreciated.

    Tue, Nov 22, 2011  Permanent link

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    CoCreatr     Tue, Nov 22, 2011  Permanent link
    Thank you so much for this rich collection. I followed your link to Clay Shirky's presentation (video 42:12) at the Berkman Center. Resonating where he says.

    Ridiculously easy group-forming improves: sharing, conversation, collaboration, collective action.

    Such as this Pepper Spraying Cop made into a meme on twitter and an art form in other places.

    starwalker     Thu, Nov 24, 2011  Permanent link
    thank you for your words and the meme contribution:) didn't see it, quite a brilliant play.
    Prompt me to think we are learning to use reflectivity differently, as if connectivity and tools allows our use of reflectivity to be lighter, faster and still intelligent and - differently from wittiness of intellectual hero - easy to interact with, work in process type, if this would Indeed rewire some of our relational dynamic...

    the description of Shirky you mention indeed add clarity to experience. He actually quotes Seb Paquet on "ridiculously easy group forming", one more important aspect of 'what changed'.
    starwalker     Mon, Nov 28, 2011  Permanent link
    some resources on implementations of consensus:  (look for general assemblies - consensus decision making)
    starwalker     Tue, Dec 20, 2011  Permanent link
    A very interesting Talk by Salim Ismail on Archetypes, Occupy and management of con-sensus in our societies, good point of perspective