The Intrapersonal Commons

The ideas of commons, commoners and commoning are becoming clearer to people.

In my understanding, a living and working commons is much more than the shared resource. For people to benefit from a commons, shared between people, and to prevent its enclosure, commoners need to maintain and govern their commons. Silke Helfrich has called this process “commoning”, to mean “taking responsibility for common stewardship” of what the commoners need, and that stewardship is strongly aligned with the long term health and wellbeing of the natural environment of the world in which we live.

Silke Helfrich and David Bollier have also written a strongly related piece on whether commoners can “become self-aware of their collective potential”. I’m asking whether commoners can become aware of their inner, personal potential from development of self-governance.

Denis Postle uses the term “psyCommons” (wildernessweb; David Bollier; P2PF wiki) to mean “a ‘common pool resource’ of our learning from experience”. It is what we use to navigate the interpersonal interactions of our daily lives. Here as well there is some threat of attempted enclosure. In this case, the commoners are — simply — all of us who interact socially. This common pool is a vital resource for our mental health and our social wellbeing. It may be difficult to see any explicit governance processes, because these are part of the fabric of everyday social life and interaction, but social psychologists could give many insights into what happens.

The “intrapersonal commons”, as I am proposing the term, is not an external, physical, social commons. It is not the “psyCommons”, though it complements it. It is a way of thinking about what is inside each individual person, or within their psyche, if you like. While body parts can be named through the study of anatomy, these parts of the psyche are not so obvious, and different people have talked about them in a variety of ways. Given this variety, it seems reasonable to suppose that the parts of the intrapersonal commons may differ between different individuals.

To get a feel for this variety of make-up, we can listen to voices from science, from literature, and history about how people have tried to grapple with this reality. There is a vast wealth of testimony, through the ages, to people experiencing inner conflicts, and often to those people trying to tame, or in other ways come to terms with, their inner urges, instincts, motives, impulses, needs or passions. I could start citing examples here, but perhaps it is better to leave this for later historical exploration with interpretation. I guess that you know enough of what I mean, for now.

Whatever these sometimes conflicting parts of ourselves are called, they are contained within the same body, with the same brain. You could say it is the brain which is the resource in common, but perhaps it is more natural to think of it as our mind, because we easily imagine the brain as a bodily organ that can be prodded by electrodes or scanned with sophisticated technology, while our minds are construed in terms of our conscious experience.

As an aside, I have read that in the extreme cases of split personality, it seems that different parts of the mind isolate themselves from each other, with (for example) different memories attached to different personalities. So in these cases, the mind would not be a fully common resource. But that is far from the normal case.

How, then, do we govern ourselves, including all these parts within each one of us? Addressing this question is a common aspect of these age-old discussions of our inner make-up. What I want to do here is to point out, and reflect on, the analogies between governing ourselves and governing an external commons. I hope this will help in several ways.

First, we may look at the research on good governance of commons, and draw insights from there on the governance of ourselves. Commons work well with some kind of peer governance, not with hierarchy. And, most of what I have read or heard on self-governance emphasises practices that include sufficient space, and reflection, to allow us to become aware of several of our parts — rather than being ruled by the first impulse that comes to mind, or the one dominant faculty within us.

Second, we may look for ways in which intrapersonal and external commons interact. The good governance of an external commons depends, in part, on the participation of commoners who govern their own intrapersonal commons well. And, conversely, it seems plausible that the governance of external resources, as well as the tacit governance patterns of the psyCommons, is mirrored in the way that people involved learn to govern themselves. We all know how much we learn by example, and this includes by analogy. Inner alienation can lead to outer alienation, and vice versa.

Third, and perhaps most significant in the contemporary discussion of Commons Transition, I want to explore the question of how positive changes may depend on changing external and intrapersonal governance together. Is our behaviour as good commoners, externally, held back by our poorly adapted patterns of intrapersonal governance? Or, could it be that our attempts to improve our intrapersonal governance are held back by what we experience of imperfect psyCommons, and by the patterns of governance of external resources? If so, then Commons Transition needs to focus on harmony of the inner and the outer. We need to focus on hand-in-hand movement, recognising that if we neglect either side, inner or outer, it may be much harder to reach our desired destination.

My sense is that, in focusing on hand-in-hand movement forwards, we can reconcile many of the dualities in our lives — to heal them, maybe. My intention is to place the ideas and practices of the commons centrally in this healing process, because, for me, the commons stands for the kind of connections that I value in my life. I value connection between peers, with reciprocity, with a focus on mutual service, and with an emphasis on the respect and valuing of each individual commoner, and all the diverse faculties within each one of us. When we are fully connected within ourselves — intrapersonally — there is so much positive power we can demonstrate. When we are fully connected between ourselves — interpersonally — there is the great power of solidarity. What can we not achieve through bringing these both together?

Please join me in exploring these and related ideas. In particular, I would greatly value help in fleshing out examples from people’s lived experience.

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’.”