Distributed Curation: the commons handling complexity

This post was first published on 2018-07-02 on the P2P Foundation blog

A story about a wiki

Let me open by saying this is only a sketch – Michel Bauwens would probably want to elaborate, but I would like to mention only the very barest details here. Back around 2006, Michel started putting his notes about Peer-to-Peer and related ideas on the P2P Foundation wiki, and opened it up to trusted others to contribute as well. Naturally, after more than 12 years of committed input, there are thousands of pages, which have received millions of page views. Like many wikis, this can be seen as an information commons.

Can one person maintain, as well as continue contributing to, such a growing resource? At some point, any such venture can become a full time occupation, and at a later point, simply unfeasible for one person alone. Thus, from time to time, Michel has invited others to help organise and contribute to the pages, and the wiki as a whole. Leaving out personal details, this has not all been sweetness and light. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of wishing to impose one’s own personal structure, one’s own worldview, on any resource of which one shares control.

Beyond the wiki pages themselves, the wiki (running on software similar to Wikipedia) pages can be given categories, and over the years Michel has written guide pages for many of these categories.

A story about community resources

Again, I will sketch out only the barest details, taken directly from life. The houses in the cohousing community that I live in are marvellously well-insulated, but small, and with little storage space: no lofts, garages or garden sheds. Coming from larger homes in an individualistic society, many of us bring literal baggage along with the habit of keeping collections of things that might be useful some time. The community does share guest rooms, a large dining and living space, a garden tool store, etc., so there are several areas where we don’t need to keep our own stuff.

But what about stuff like: books; envelopes; bags; fabrics and materials; glass jars; plastic containers; DIY tools and materials; boxes; camping equipment or any of the many things other people keep in their lofts, garages or garden sheds? We are committed to a low-energy future, where reuse and re-purposing are valued. But there is not enough space for us to keep more than a fraction of what we could potentially reuse. Can we make more of a material commons around these day-to-day resources, even if they look unimportant politically?

How are wikis like stuff we keep? Where are the commons here?

The truth is, in any highly complex system, each of us has at best only a partial and personal understanding of that complexity. We may be experts in our own field (however small) but know little of other people’s fields, and have only a vague overview. Or we may be the people with an overview of everything, but the more we devote ourselves to holding the overview in mind, the less mental space we have for all the details. So, are commons simple or complex? While each part of a commons may be simple enough to grasp, my guess is that, when taken together, the sum total of our potential commons is indeed highly complex, and far beyond the scope of what any one person can fully comprehend.

The lack of space in our homes simply serves to highlight the fact that in any case, most of us don’t have the time or energy to keep a well organised collection of jars, bottles, tools, equipment, and potentially reusable resources of all kinds. When we delve into the richness of a wiki like the P2P Foundation’s, the links in the chain rapidly lead us to areas where we know very little. That’s why it is useful! We gather and store information, as we do physical materials, not knowing when something might be useful. But can we find it (the material resource, the information) when we want to?

My proposition is that, first, we grasp that essential truth that this same pattern is increasingly common in our complex world. And, second, we recognise that we can do something very constructive about it. But it needs coordination, trust, and, maybe, something like a ‘commons’ mindset.

The sad version of the ending

Returning to our stories, what might happen next? It’s easy to imagine awkward, frustrating futures. The information we stored is no longer up to date. The links lead to 404 pages. The summaries, useful in their time, omit last year’s game-changing developments. Visitors don’t find them useful, and so they are not motivated to join in the curation. Our information commons initiative, once so promising and useful, gradually loses its value, and sooner or later it is effectively abandoned. We turn back to the monetised sources of information that are controlled by global capital.

We overfill our small homes with stuff that might come in handy one day. But because we don’t really have the proper space to organise the stuff, when we want something we can’t find it anyway. And we have less room in our heads, as well as our houses, trying to keep track of all the stuff. No one else can help us quickly, because they all suffer from the same difficulties. And no one has thought to keep those rare whatever-they-are-called things.

Alternatively, the space we use collectively to store our stuff gets fuller and fuller, and everything is harder to find. No one knows where everything is. People start moving other people’s stuff just to help them organise some other stuff. Either way, we don’t find what we’re looking for. So we go and order a new one. More consumption of energy, more resource depletion, worse environment, more climate change …

Articulating the commons of information and physical materials

So, let’s try for more positive narratives.

Anyone who turns up to use our information commons resource is invited to get to know someone here already. Soon we have an idea of what particular knowledge our newcomer has, in which areas. Through personal contact and discussion, and seeing some reliable behaviour, trust develops. We give them the task of revising the most out-of-date resource that is within their area of competence, interest, energy or enthusiasm. They make a good job of it. They get appreciative feedback, which motivates them to take on more, looking after a whole category. The resource, the commons, grows in real value, and more people come. ‘They’ become one of us. Repeat.

My neighbours and I get together to talk over our resources, and soon every kind of stuff has one or two people who volunteer to look after that kind of stuff. Now that I can trustingly pass on my unused books, my DIY materials, my plastic bottles and containers, and all the other ‘junk’ I have accumulated, I have enough space for a really well-organised collection of glass jars. Anyone with spare glass jars gives them to me. I know which ones there is demand for, and I pass the others on for recycling. When anyone has a sudden urge to make jam, I have plenty of jars ready for the occasion. I even keep a few unusual ones just in case, because I have the space. Every now and then, someone is really astonished that just what they need is there!

Let me, finally, try to describe the common pattern here, and contrast it with other possible patterns.

It’s different from having one big heap of resources which is everyone’s responsibility equally. No one knows which resources or areas they should take responsibility for, and there is anxiety about entrusting other people to look after other areas, because no one is clear how much attention is being given to what, and how much energy is being wasted looking over other people’s shoulders.

It’s different from a hierarchical control structure, because the people at the ‘top’ are less likely to have the on-the-ground feedback to know what a manageable, coherent collection is. Yes, perhaps it is possible to emulate a good commons with an enlightened hierarchical structure, but how do you know that some agent of global capital isn’t going to come right in and completely change the way things are done, imposing a confusing, alien world view, and promptly syphoning off the surplus value?

The common pattern – the pattern I am suggesting for complex commons – could be called “distributed curation”, and the vision is of a commons governed by consensus, and maintained through a culture that promotes the development of trust, along with the development of people to be worthy of that trust. It relies on personal knowledge and trust between people curating neighbouring areas, so that they can gracefully shift their mutual boundaries when times change, or allow a new area to grow between them. It relies on the natural, spontaneous differences in people’s interests, as well as the motivation for people to take on responsibility for deepening their own areas of knowledge within a community context, when trusted, encouraged, and given positive feedback and support by the community; and when they see the natural feedback of their actions benefiting other people.

I’m left with the question, how do we get there? My answers are few, and need much elaboration. Yes, we need to get to know each other, but how can we arrange to introduce people who will enjoy getting to know each other? Yes, we need to build up trust, but what kinds of activities can we do so that trust is built most reliably? Yes, we need to identify and negotiate people’s different patches of service and responsibility, but just how can we do that? Yes, we need to inspire people with a vision of distributed curation, but what language, and which media, are going to communicate that vision effectively?

Some discussion of this post is taking place on the Commons Transition Loomio Group

Curating the commons and trashing nothing

I’ve been a member of trash nothing for a while, thinking all along about how it could be more effective. The inefficiency is similar to small ads in a newspaper. The time it takes to look through all the potentially relevant ads to find ones that actually are relevant can be disproportionate. It may end up as a very ineffective use of time and attention.

What might help?

Could indexing / categorising help? An ontology perhaps? Using all relevant standard identifier vocabularies? Ideas abound; enthusiasm tends to live only in the enthusiasts.

Perhaps more promising, what if various people took on the role of knowledge manager of their favourite area of this space of reuse and potential recycling?

Or, take it further: maybe volunteers could take on actually curating donated goods? If someone knows about the demand for particular kinds of things (so many kinds of things pop up) then they would be in a good position to know if an offer really just needs to go to materials recycling, or whether someone is likely to want it, sooner or later. Any way round, it needs knowledge. Let’s distribute the curation of that knowledge.

The bits and pieces of IT

The last few days I’ve been following some intriguing discussions on the Collaborative Technology Alliance and the idea of an “Open App Ecosystem” (e.g. here or here) What comes up in these discussions is that many different groups have tried to build, or at least envisage or plan, something along those lines. What we have right now is a relatively unorganised bunch of attempts to do something that is, by all accounts, very worthwhile.

The analogy

Now for the moment of (possible?) insight. What if we treated the idea of interrelating Open Apps in a way similar to Trash Nothing? I mean, we have a collaborative knowledge management task here. And underlying that, a task to agree suitable foundations for managing that knowledge in a commoner-owned, collaborative way: as a knowledge commons.

Similar to Freecycle / Freegle, it’s great to have all these offers on the table, but for them to be used needs people to be aware of what there is at the right time, and in the meanwhile, to have people curate these knowledge resources so that they are available when wanted.

Curation brings up the question of trust. Who can be trusted to do that curation? Let’s face it: none of us have the time or patience to curate the whole thing effectively. Curation of the knowledge needs to be distributed to be effective; and even more, curation of physical assets needs to be distributed and re-localised. But the curators need to trust each other, and communicate well; the users (commoners?) need to trust the curators. Curators must be accountable to commoners.

Back to my recurring theme of needing to build up trust (and mutual knowledge, respect and understanding) one-to-one, most likely face-to-face.

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.

Why being older now is full of potential

If you are the same kind of age as I am, or older, have you brooded sometimes, like me, over missed opportunities? Like how you didn’t become a professor / change the world / become rich / create that sought-after startup / have your ideas internationally recognised / become a speaker on the speaker circuit having people hanging on your every word? Join the club.

And now let’s leave it, together! Many people who have been successful have burned out, or accepted the assumptions of the system as part of their core set of beliefs. Now, around the time when traditionally successful people are retiring, now is the time to rise and shine. Why? Because they are tired, they want or need a break, they are (with some truly wonderful exceptions) a spent force. Not only do you have the energy, because you haven’t wasted it on “the rat race”, but you are open minded as well, because you haven’t “sold your soul” to the dominant ideology. Age, at our age, has the great advantage of experience, provided that we don’t let ourselves get stuck in stale assumptions or fixed positions. We are free, just because we have so little invested in the status quo.

You may have twenty years of active life in front of you, because you are still in good health, again partly because you have suffered less stress than many, because you have lived your life nearer, or at least not so far away from, your genuine deeply held beliefs. Many at our age have lost their beliefs, out of cynicism or complacency — or maybe just from too much comfort. We still have deeply held beliefs, and they are developing in richness, because our minds are still well and truly open, growing, ever fresh.

We are hungry for conversation, because it keeps becoming clearer that no one is to be despised, that all have their own stories, their own value, and that we can sometimes learn the most from people who are the least like ourselves. As we make more sense of the world, have more experience, we are able to relate to, and empathise with, more and more kinds of people. In conversation, we long to share our knowledge and experience, not imposing it, but offering it as another angle, another contribution, just as we value the contributions and angles of others.

We are hungry also for collaboration, because our experience has proved beyond doubt that we cannot do a great deal by ourselves alone, separately. We have had the time and opportunity to pit ourselves against the challenges of life, and to have experienced resounding failures. Many successful people have done that as well; but failing in the public eye runs huge risks to mental health and stability. Not many have that resilience. We have had more time to build up our resilience, out of the limelight. And it is the stronger for that.

We accept, naturally, that we will never be Olympic athletes. That is for youth of body. We will never be grandmasters at chess. That is mostly for youth of mind. But emotional, psychological and spiritual resilience and wisdom can grow throughout life.

Perhaps I am just revisiting T. S. Eliot:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

Carpe diem — the unexpected day, not the expected one.

Order and chaos inside ourselves

I’ve been musing on order and chaos.

One hears of “chaotic” lives, people for whom it is difficult to arrange to set an alarm clock to get up in the morning, or to make an appointment and keep it. But, rather than thinking of chaotic people as “them”, people we want to distance ourselves from, how about thinking of the chaos in ourselves, and how we deal with it?

Some people, it seems, maybe those who have compulsions or obsessions, might use obsessive or compulsive behaviour as a way of keeping the chaos at bay. Things are not chaotic, they tell themselves, just as long as they keep whatever it is they are obsessive about under control. Maybe we all have an aspect of that? Maybe we all have limits — if certain things are not under control, we feel subject to chaos. The size of that set is what varies between individuals.

The greater the chaos in a given historical era, perhaps the greater has been the striving for order. Monasticism is a great example. It is an archetype of an ordered life. Not for nothing are they called “monastic orders” or “religious orders”. But is this over the top? I think immediately of Hermann Hesse’s “Glass Bead Game”, or “Glasperlenspiel”. In Hesse’s opinion, the ordered life seems not necessarily to be the summit of human existence.

So where is the balance? Where is the sweet spot for different individuals, and how do we find it?

In Personal Construct Psychology, there is the idea that when a construct system is in the process of change, the individual feels lost, perhaps rather chaotic, while awaiting the building up of the new construct system. So maybe it is not so much a balance, as a highly dynamic equilibrium?

I’d like to go into this more, because to me it points to some key questions concerning individual identity and personality.

What kind of resources should be shared?

Living in a cohousing project, and being one of the directors of the next door workspace co-op (Green Elephant), I have more than the average interest in what is best shared. Yet there seems to be little guidance I can find on what to share, and what not to share.

It’s easy to go astray either way. If you don’t share anything, what’s the point? That’s how our society is set to keep us down and to keep the profits accumulating to the business elite. The more we share, the less we buy – that can’t be good news for those who make profits from selling us stuff. Then there’s the economics and the environment. If we share nothing, we carry on pumping more and more unsustainable CO2 into the atmosphere. Global resources are degraded faster than they can be renewed. It is neither sustainable nor resilient.

On the other hand, one of the reasons co-housing has developed in practice is to hold off from the kind of communal living in which extreme sharing overrides boundaries. Indeed, I have seen (though never participated in) communes where any kind of exclusivity is frowned on, even including family relationships. But, does this give the kind of warm stability and security needed in a good environment for raising children? I would say, extreme sharing definitely does not.

At a more political level, the aspect I grasp of the communism/capitalism ideological conflict is that people care more about their “own” things, they look after them better, they take more pride in them, and it is plausible that the more care and pride devoted to any enterprise, the more successful it is.

The level at which I now see myself as operating lies between the individualised household and society at large. In a group of people who know each other, and have sufficient trust, whether at work or at home, there is potential for sharing things. So how much sharing is good?

These kind of questions were coming up the other day about some of the resources at Halton Mill where Green Elephant operates. We directors are carefully considering ways forward, but in the meanwhile I’d like to put forward a completely personal point of view that is not the point of view of the Green Elephant directors collectively.

We currently manage a fair amount of office and workshop space. Assuming there is some elasticity in the demand for space, raising the prices would lead to some people moving out because they could not afford it, and others might squeeze in tighter to give more room for others.

But as well as plain space, there are other more specialised resources. We already have a shared printer, that has been running very well for over a year. Some things we haven’t had up to now, but are or will be working on. The example closest to my personal interest is a secure space for Internet servers. Other examples may come up for discussion later.

To digress a little, many of us have been working hard as volunteers to get B4RN here — “hyperfast” Broadband for the Rural North — and when it comes (some time in 2015) we will have an enviable setup, with community interest carbon-free electricity (from Halton Lune Hydro) able to power servers through a community-interest Internet provider, in space managed by our grass roots Green Elephant co-op. No elites in sight here!

To stand by the co-operative principles, my personally preferred solution for a scarce resource would be to manage it co-operatively. That management co-op would be open to any Green Elephant member business or individual who wished to use the scarce resource as part or the whole of their business offering.

There’s an important point here that is worth stressing. Each business, or indeed individual, would still run their own business, and the co-op, whose members are those individuals or businesses, would manage the sharing of the relevant facilities. It would make sense for the basic hard-to-move or bespoke fixtures to belong to Green Elephant, but things that are easily removable and changeable would belong either to the management co-op or the individual businesses, according to what worked for the people involved.

Surely, one of the reasons for co-operative structures is that people as a whole should be better off as a result. If co-operation is done well, better decisions can be made with more people involved – a little like the principle that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”, which Eric Raymond dubbed “Linus’s Law”. Not only that, but also that people feel more involved, and more likely to give the enterprise care as if it were “their own”.

The pattern is pretty clear to me.

For plentiful business resources, let people have their own, without the restrictions of having to consult and agree with others. For scarce, valued resources, set up a co-op to manage a related set of resources equitably as well as prudently, in a way that maximises the use of the resource through sharing, and at the same time clearly places the responsibility of management, maintenance, legal compliance, etc. to exactly those users, without needing to involve other people who have less interest. Then, let every co-op reflect carefully on those co-operative principles, and co-operate with the other co-operatives.

In a non-business context, where there are no legal requirements to fulfill, there is less need to incorporate. This is what we do at Lancaster Cohousing, where there are different service teams for each separate area of collective responsibility, including all those with the interest and time to be positively involved.

In both cases, the first question to be asked is, is this resource valuable, scarce or precious enough to prompt sharing? The more valued and scarce a resource is, the more important it is to share the ownership, control and responsibility in the spirit of co-operation. The “magic” will be to arrange what is shared, and the governance structures, so that people are engaged in roles and tasks they care about, or have a natural interest in.

Does that make good sense as a way of deciding what to share?


Background: I read the article “The Permaculture Fail” by Frank Aragona on resilience.org, duplicating a blog post giving a extract from a podcast on Aragona’s own Agricultural Innovations site.

The discussions are worth looking at to get a flavour of how people respond to these issues.

Aragona’s argument comes across to me like this. Small time farming, even using permaculture methods, barely works by itself, and certainly doesn’t offer a good life. What is needed is to understand how to work with the economic mechanisms of our society. As he says, “it is time we started creating the socio-economic models that will make permaculture successful”. In a follow-up post, Aragona discusses “understanding economies of scale.

Here at Lancaster Cohousing there are several people interested in permaculture. They recognise that it needs substantial knowledge. Not many people both have that substantial knowledge and are able to put it into practice.

My response is clearly positive. This is, it seems to me, exactly the kind of approach that would be good to take. Naive idealism has never worked out well. I have needed to move away and on, over decades, from such an idealistic perspective. We would all do well to move on. And here, most have done so. We generally recognise that the world is not to be saved on one issue: not if everyone turns vegan, not if everyone eats organic or local food, not if everyone has a miniscule carbon footprint.

One root cause seems to me to be the fallacy that any one of us can know enough, individually, to make a big difference. We need to specialise, but not see our chosen specialty as unique. Rather, we need to continue exploring how to collaborate effectively, and (don’t underestimate this next word) efficiently.

Efficiency is a vital part of what will make a culture genuinely sustainable and resilient.