Building coherent systems co-operatively

Recently (2017-02-16&17) I was at the Open 2017 conference in London. It was an inspiring event with a greatly positive sense, and with much too much choice to go to everything. I went to a working session on designing an open app ecosystem – one of the relatively few sessions where people actually got to talk a lot in small groups, but missed a related session by one of the Open Co-op‘s founders, Oliver Sylvester-Bradley because I was at another place where people worked in small groups (on the “platform design toolkit”).

And this has led me to reflect on the psychological and social dynamics of an open app ecosystem, in the light of my long experience of working on technical interoperability standards in various contexts.

As a society, we seem to know how to build coherent systems top-down. Think Apple, think Ikea (article by John Thackara, who was at the conference). It seems we are not yet confident about how to build coherent systems co-operatively. Even Linux – at the kernel end, fine, because there is centralised authority; but the distros, the software, the version control …

The goal of building a coherent open system is close to my heart, as it is to many other attendees. The way to go about this is not clear to me. It’s obviously not to invite all of us conceptual system builders (possibly INTJs – I admit, it’s a weakness of mine as well as a strength) to have a beauty contest of our brilliant ideas. Even though they are all brilliant and beautiful, and, wouldn’t it be so much easier if everyone else adoped mine? 😉 But how, then?

Maybe I’d start with something useful from my own experience. If two people are open enough, in the right frame of mind, detailed long conversation between two conceptual system builders can go a very long way. Every time I’ve done this, I’ve come away with fresh insights; with a deeper understanding of how my own master vision had missed out something, perhaps something vital. And of how the other person’s point of view is really fascinatingly different from mine.

And then I’d continue in a small peer group setting. I find this setting essential to my being able to hear things that perhaps I don’t want to hear – maybe that one of my favourite pet ideas just doesn’t work for other people. While in a one-to-one, I can come out with the hope that the other person will still see the light one day, in contrast, in a group setting (at least one where there is trust, honesty, openness and warmth) I can be supported enough to let go of my own obsession and go with the greater wisdom of the connected group. (That’s quite different from groupthink.)

To do what we are trying to do technically, the psychological and social aspects – the open, co-operative “culture”, if you like – is absolutely vital. It’s not an optional extra. I don’t believe that technical solutions by themselves ever work in the long run, without a proper attention to culture.

At Open 2017, near the start, there was a reflection on gender balance. It wasn’t anywhere near balanced. I’m wondering whether more focus on the cultural, social, psychological dimensions of what we are trying to do would naturally bring in more of the feminine sensibility? I know many others would welcome a better gender balance as well, and I wonder if we can explore our feelings as well as getting our heads together, to being more co-operative in building coherent systems?

Loving the other in ourselves and peers

One of the people whose views I respect — to me he has “wise old man” status — is Denis Postle. Just today he has published a post on his blog called “Truthiness, Brands, Lies and Alternative ‘facts’” which to me — someone who practised hypnotherapy for a short time — is really fascinating. It tells of how we need to be alert to the trance-induction that we are too often subjected to by self-serving, elite-controlled media.

I was immediately moved to comment:

Perhaps we are also commonly entranced by our own hypnotic narratives about ourselves. What do we see as natural or inevitable for ourselves? Which is commonly caught from enculturation.

All the more important to help each other — fellow commoners — to be aware of entrancement, from whatever source; to discern the helpful from the harmful. This, to me, is one of the features often lacking from the psyCommons, perhaps due to the survival value of thinking-in-common.

So how do we do this well, between ourselves?

This connects in my mind to the most recent interview by Krista Tippett, “On Being“, with Alain de Botton. It’s called “The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships“, and contains many gems. Here’s my personal favourite extract (from their helpfully provided transcript):

Ms. Tippett: A lot of what you are pointing at, the work of loving over a long span of time, is inner work, right? [laughs] And it would be hard to film that. But I’m very intrigued by how you talk about the Ancient Greeks and their “pedagogical” view of love.

Mr. de Botton: That’s fascinating, because one of the greatest insults that you can level at a lover in the modern world apparently is to say, “I want to change you.” The Ancient Greeks had a view of love which was essentially based around education, that what love means — love is a benevolent process whereby two people try to teach each other how to become the best versions of themselves.

Ms. Tippett: Right. You say somewhere they are committed to “increasing the admirable characteristics” that they possess and the other person possesses.

Linking these together is an insight that came to me in Sunday’s Quaker Meeting for Worship. The inner silence that we practice together can be a help in silencing the stories we repeat to ourselves about ourselves, and in that silence, to arrive at an inner state where we no longer are compelled to act out those stories. Compare Galen Strawson’s essay, I am not a story, published by Aeon.

Aren’t stories about ourself just self-authorship? Self-authorship, I recognise, can also be self-deception. Seeing ourselves as having certain qualities, is inextricably linked to seeing ourselves as not having other qualities. Perhaps this relates to Jung’s concept of the ‘shadow’. As so many wise psychotherapists point out, we have a great tendency, and temptation, to project the qualities we ourselves disown onto other people, particularly onto people close to us. But, if we can silence such self-justificatory and self-serving stories within ourselves, we might free ourselves to love the ‘other’ in the other person; and through them, to come to recognise and love the ‘other’ in ourselves; towards our greater wholeness, which necessarily involves great humility.

Compare this extract in French from a fellow P2P Foundation Wiki contributor, Maïa Dereva:

Il me semble donc que les communs et le pair-à-pair ne pourront se développer harmonieusement qu’à la seule condition que les individus intègrent profondément que «pair», contrairement à son homonyme informatique, n’est pas synonyme de ce qui est «identique à moi» mais parle de connexion et d’amour d’une radicale altérité.
(from the blog post Pire to pire : le fantasme de la perfection sociale)

OK, my French is pretty basic, but let’s try a rough translation…
“It seems to me that the [communities of the] Commons, and Peer to Peer, can only develop harmoniously on condition that individuals [in those communities] deeply internalise [the understanding] that ‘peer’, contrary to its usage in IT, is not synonymous with ‘identical to me’, but speaks about connection, and about loving that which is radically ‘other’.”

Stories of lives

I was reading an article in the newish Aeon magazine, by Galen Strawson. His conclusion, I thought, was rather tame…

I concede it. Consideration of the sequence – the ‘narrative’, if you like – might be important for some people in some cases. For most of us, however, I think self-knowledge comes best in bits and pieces. Nor does this concession yield anything to the sweeping view with which I began, the view – in Sacks’s words – that all human life is life-writing, that ‘each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”, and that ‘this narrative is us’.

… so I felt moved to comment. Here’s my comment.

I’m quite surprised no one has yet quoted T S Eliot. So much in Four Quartets. Working backwards:

History may be servitude,
History may be freedom.


Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.

and earlier still

There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

Surely, it seems to me, no personal stories can be passed off as “the truth”. And yet, stories are all we have to make sense of lives, our own and those of others. So, if we are mature (and not bound to any supposed “fundamental” narrative truth) I guess we have just to live with a plurality of narratives about our selves. We tell stories to convey sense to the listener. Sometimes the listener is ourselves. The more we need a coherent story, the more vehemently we will tell ourselves the selected story that confirms the identity that we need to affirm. Our stories to others can sometimes be self-conscious lies, if we think that’s what they need to hear.

But perhaps we can let go of the centrality of our own self-narratives. We can take St Paul’s position – “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” Perhaps our deepest value is the role we can play in other people’s stories? The transformation from being something like “lost” to something more like “found” doesn’t always need a narrative beyond the proto-story: “I was blind; now I can see.” Sometimes, elaborating that story is just creating a fictional narrative. The truth may just be the moment of transformation.