(I am having a discussion with Tracey about the Parallel Structures post below, and you can read some of our banter over at dose…some of it spilled into email, and here is a revised version of something I just sent).

I think the only effective way to change things is to build tools and mechanisms to do things differently, and build them bit by bit. If they are successful, then they will win admirers; if they are not, then they will fall away (as they should). The net allows you to build all sorts of interesting projects with: an idea, a bit of tech development, and interested people. The results can be small projects like LibriVox, or massive projects like wikipedia.

Theory is fine, but it floats around in academia and grad schools and coffee houses, and has very little to do with the real world. Occasionally (say with the neocons in the USA, the CNT in Spain in the 30s) a group of idealist adherents gets power and implements an idea in a sweeping, revolutionary way. The usual result is tragedy of some kind, because theory does not map well to the chaotic nature of the world. Further, powers that be don’t like idealist revolution because they tend to take away their power. Even more, the majority of people do not trust radical change, because they prefer to trust the devil they know (that is, they are wise: they prefer to be shown a better way, than to trust an idea of a better way). Finally, good theories often don’t work in practice.

The most effective way to change people’s minds is to demonstrate that another way is better than the one they are using. If you describe a carrot to me (it’s a root, from the ground, it’s orange, tastes good!) I probably would not be inspired to seek one out. Give me one, let me taste it, and i’ll say yum! Gimme more.

That is, theories put into practice without proper testing and feedback mechanisms, without growing naturally, and without demonstrating that they are better than the alternatives, tend to cause unforeseen problems, and ideas are not a good way to change the general public’s mind.

Much better, I think, is to put little ideas into practice, and allow them to build organically so that they can grow and become a robust and healthy ideas that are actually implemented and do something interesting, and are supported by the pragmatic requirements of the universe, rather than planned in the abstract and applied as is. More specifically, ideas prove their worth by actually achieving things that people care about, rather than forcing people to abstract out the potential benefits of the idea itself. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Things that improve people’s lives are what matter.

Take wikipedia for instance. People could have come up with all sorts of legitimate objections to the idea (in fact they did, and still do). Six years ago Britannica would have laughed their asses off at such a stupid project. So if wikipedia went out in 2000 and said to the world, “Stop reading Britannica and come join our project to build an encyclopeadia that will be better than Britannica!” … it would have been hubris and silliness, and would not have worked. Instead, they said, “Here is our idea. Here are the tools and mechanism to implement our idea. The process is open and we’ll allow it to evolve as participants want it to.” And so, a complex and difficult series of norms and policies and compromises were implemented, all in order to better assure the central idea, and the project attracted more and more people to participate as editors, and also readers came, hungry for information, and now no one laughs anymore about wikipedia, because whatever Britannica or various critics have to say, it has become the top reference work on the net, and consequently in most people’s lives. It is the de facto starting point for information gathering on any topic. Whether it is theoretically “better” or “worse” than Britannica matters not, because it is *effectively* better. That is, it is the tool people use because it is most successful at being useful to them.

That, I think, is the only way that real change happens: not by giving people ideas (which of course are important), but by providing a better way (concretely) than the alternative. Free software is a nice idea, but free software never had any real impact on my life till Firefox(let’s forget that Google runs on Linux servers).

In my experience, then, the net allows you to easily and cheaply implement radical ideas, that might be more successful at doing certain things than the alternatives. In order to implement ideas you need:

a) a central idea, and central principles
b) tools and mechanisms to implement the idea

Even better, you should add:
c) open and flexible structures so that the mechanisms and tools to implement the idea can be improved
d) a community of people who believe in the central idea, and are able to shape the mechanisms and tools based on the real world challenges they, and the idea, face
e) information to allow b, c, d to happen in the best way

So: I envision a way to allow me and like-minded people have a large pool of money to do important social projects (important to me, to like-minded people), since it seems as though governments have less and less interest and ability to do so. (I also note that governments are pretty *bad* at doing many things. Imagine, for instance, if wikipedia had been a project of the Canadian government!). I envision, essentially, a sort of democratic/anarchist means of collecting and distributing money to projects. It’s a crazy idea, and I have no idea if it could work. I think it is a good idea - probably with many problems that you and others would find in the process.

But that implementation of an idea will have problems does not in any way make me nervous. The only way I would imagine something like this is in an open project, so that the project could be shaped by people who care about it, and so concerns and problems could be addressed somehow: I don’t know how, and I don’t need to … because I have faith in people’s ability to solve problems, given access to data and mechanisms to solve them.

[givemeaning.com, by the way, are doing something like this, and seem to have a great project going, tho it’s still a closed kind of project, and I think they need to open things up if they want long-term success]

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