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(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.

[, 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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I’ve been chatting a bit with Austin Hill of late. I convinced him to join the advisory committee of the Atwater Digital Literacy Project, and we seem to be interested in many of the same things, mostly revolving around applying the power of online communities to idealistic goals. His Top Secret Project-Ojibwe (based on aboriginal gift-culture) is coming out sometime later this year, which if I understand is going to be one central project, with many little side projects, such as

Anyway, that project, plus the thinking I’ve been doing over the last few years, and my experience with librivox lead to this little epiphany the other day. Perhaps this is happening already somewhere (and I haven’t fully thought it through or fleshed it out, but there you go)… enough chatter, here’s the idea:

1. internet and distributed communities are very good at:
a) building software
b) sorting/managing/making info available (wikipedia/librivox)
c) massive peer-review, monitoring
d) democratic ranking (technorati by links, digg by diggs, wikipedia for info etc)
e) leveraging small-chunk work to make a big project cheap and easy

2. free softare, wikipedia, creative commons, librivox are all examples of PARALLEL structures, that do not concern themselves much with what is happening in the mainstream, instead focus on building something different, in PARALLEL.

3. government is increasingly (or always has been) removed from the actual desires of people - part of this is because the process is hidden from most people. it takes real dedication, time, effort to influence policy (hence pro lobbyists = money talks, not voices)

4. what does government do?
a) raises funds (tax)
b) plans policy
c) plans programs to implement policy
d) decides on budget allocation for different programs
e) (sometimes) implements programs
f) monitors progress of projects

5. this process is hidden, inefficient, and subject to influence peddling. But effectively it makes the rules, gets the money and spends the money.

6. while groups of individuals are not able to make the rules, they can raise money, and spend it.

7. charity generally is subject to some of the same problems … and often only 30% (check #?) of money actually donated to charity goes to programmes - the 70% balance goes to administration, fund-raising.

8. much of the reason for 7 (above) is that getting funding is difficult, time consuming, inefficient, and requires massive efforts, publicity, management. loads of paper.

8. re: #4 … without replacing government, is there a parallel system that could be set up, that could do some of these tasks… with a model like #2.

9. YES! again, looking at the government’s role, the internet & open projects can be very good at:
a) raising funds
b) deciding on budget allocation
c) monitoring progress of projects.

10. Probably not so good at:
b) planning policy
c) planning programs to implement policy
e) implementing programs

(these all take more energy, time, on the ground effort … which is possible, but is not the real power of a distributed system).


An open-style charity “foundation,” that works as follows:
-Members pay $20/yr each ($50? $100?)
-This money goes into a fund
-You can donate more money, but no one is given more power because of how much money they have donated (but maybe some sort of moderation karma points, as with slashdot)
-projects “apply” for funding (eg atwater digital media), by posting project description, budget, plan
-Members can:
-ask questions
-make suggestions
-rank projects

-On an ongoing basis (maybe every 3 months?) the foundation does an open budgeting process, where members decide on allocating: short-term, and long-term funding to projects that have ranked well.
-Projects will be required to update progress and info on an ongoing basis, solicit input, etc, and further funding can be decided based on that.
-(an aside: When projects run into trouble, the Members that supported the project should be aware, and can possibly offer more concrete help)

In this way a totally parallel system (to government & usual charity foundations) could be established to fund projects with a community of givers that:
a) funds itself, through membership
b) decides on where the money goes in an open process
c) monitors & provides feedback (and possibly more concrete support) on an ongoing basis
d) is transparent & efficient

NOTE: This principle should be applied also to an new open internet media production house too, to find a way to fund film-makers, musicians, etc, based on an open co-op system…film, music projects funded based on the interest of the Open Production House Co-Op members.

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Famous Montreal digital entrepreneur Austin Hill is launching a new (top secret) community-based start-up, focused on philanthropy. (He’s also agreed to be on the Advisory Committee of another project I am involved with, the Atwater Digital Literacy Project). We’ve been talking a bit about a bunch of things, but generally discussing building online communities with a specific purpose - which his blog talks about a fair bit (he also did an interview with me)

He had one post a while back, about leadership, which contained some quotations from the “Tao Te Ching,”, the guiding philosophical text of ancient China. Among the gems:

If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.
The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have,
the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have,
the less self-reliant people will be.
Therefore the Master says:
I let go of the law,
and people become honest.
I let go of economics,
and people become prosperous.
I let go of religion,
and people become serene.
I let go of all desire for the common good,
and the good becomes common as grass.

To the extent that I can be considered a “leader” of LibriVox (Christine calls me the “mayor of LibriVox”), I was surprised to see so much of my approach reflected in this and other bits of the Tao. It was a struggle in the early days, releasing LibriVox from my ego and letting it go where people wanted to take it. Of course, I still try to bend it to my will in certain directions, but in almost all cases that bending is in favour of openness: the two big controversies are “reader standards” (we have none, all are welcome to record no matter how “good” they are); and “niceness” (we don’t tolerate jerky behaviour on the forum - UPDATE: someone asked my how banning jerkyness could be considered in favour of openness … and the answer is inclusion … our forum is very welcoming, so people who do not like other internet forums like ours. Certainly it is a bit of a Nice-Police State, but the results pay off: more people enjoy the forum and contribute to the project; jerkiness would drive away many people. So it’s sort of an openness=access argument, rather than an openness=total freedom…of course this contradicts the Tao a little, but what can you do.). Other than that, things are pretty open. Though as we have evolved, we have become more complex, and more rigid in our way of doing things.

Still, as a general principle behind building communities, my experience is:
a) articulate a goal
b) follow the tao
c) if you need to check your direction, check against the goal first (objective), and the tao second (way to objective)

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James, a LibriVox volunteer, tells me about CouchSurfing as an open project worth checking out. Will-do.

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Musings on open collaborative projects, (mostly non-software) with a focus on idealism and not money-making. The starting point is the project. Mostly written by Hugh McGuire, but guest writers may join in as well. [more ...]