Heather Marsh: government as mass collaboration

Originally published on Loomio’s blog.

Heather Marsh is a human rights and internet activist, programmer, political theorist, and former Editor in Chief at Wikileaks Central, and the author of Binding Chaos, a compelling blueprint for 21st century governance. An excerpt:

Binding Chaos – book by Heather Marsh We can do better than [representative democracy]. We can govern by user groups, respect individual rights and global commons, and collaborate using stigmergy. We can belong to overlapping societies voluntarily by acceptance of social contracts. Where necessary, elite expertise can be contained and used through transparent epistemic communities with knowledge bridges while control remains with the user group.

Loomio co-founder Richard D. Bartlett had the very good fortune to interview Heather recently, as part of our ongoing interview series: Inspiring Disruptors.

I’m really excited about your concept of “stigmergic collaboration, epistemic communities and knowledge bridges”. How would you describe these ideas to my 8 year old niece? (She is pretty smart).

Stigmergic collaboration is what happens when people who don’t have to talk to each other or know each other work on the same project and build something together. There has to be one idea that everyone understands and agrees on as a goal but beyond that no one is the boss or telling anyone how to work or even if they should work.

If you go into your doctor’s office and she has a puzzle on a table that other patients have been working on that is an example of stigmergy. You don’t know who has worked on it before or after you, but you know what to do and you are free to add a few pieces if you like.

There are much bigger ideas too, like “Information wants to be free”. There are many nodes under that stigmergical idea, everything from whistleblowers, MOOCs, file sharers, projects such as Wikipedia and Telecomix, open source everything and much more. Everyone is free to further the idea in their own way, the only commonality is the goal.

Epistemic communities are a way to provide elite expertise for projects without relinquishing control to an elite oligarchy. People or ideas are peer promoted from within the user group and communities remain transparent and permeable to everyone. Acceptance or rejection of the ideas is always up to the user group to avoid an unassailable oligarchy.

Knowledge bridges are people who help disseminate information from an expert to a novice level of understanding and collectively audit what the epistemic community is doing. Besides being essential for education and auditing, this is important to avoid demagogues who have the ability and time to develop mass appeal but are not the source of expertise at the level the world needs. Epistemic communities and knowledge bridges allow elite expertise a direct path of communication to the entire user group and provide a path for anyone in the user group to achieve elite expertise if they wish.

Your niece would understand this if she has ever looked up math games on the Internet. The Internet provides many knowledge bridges which help lead her to the epistemic community of elite mathematicians and allow her to become one if she chooses to study that hard.

Where are you seeing these ideas take hold? What do you see happening in the world that gives you hope?

Anywhere information can be very rapidly disseminated, verified, audited and acted upon is fertile ground for stigmergy, epistemic communities and knowledge bridges. I love the way MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) forums sometimes act as a job seeking forum with employers and collaborators finding talent by watching people work in a real setting instead of relying on official certification, like musical collaborations used to result from jam sessions. I also love the local affinity groups and friendships created from those courses.

The progress that gives me hope is in the areas which strive to get more people connected to collaborative networks and more amplification to silent voices. Stigmergy has always been our most powerful collaborative method and stigmergy follows ideas, so efforts to bypass control by corporate media, politicians, thought leaders and other representatives and allow people to contribute ideas directly with their own voices are essential.

Your conception of government as mass collaboration has really influenced my thinking in designing for Loomio. Do you have any ideas about the practice of making this idea real for people in their everyday lives?

Governance to me is action not an organization. It is something people have to just do. It is only after governance by the people is established that politicians can be lobbied into supporting it until it makes them obsolete. My first goal is to enable every person to participate, to write software, platforms and guides and provide outreach of all kinds to help people participate wherever their interests lie.

Unofficial ministries for each system should be set up as permanent open epistemic communities regardless of what government is in power. Currently, lobby groups are sometimes formed to attempt to influence policy but what is needed are full and permanent shadow cabinets by the people. When this shadow cabinet is established and effective, there will be no need for any other. The unofficial ministries which represent the will and peer promoted expertise of the people will guide policy or the elected politicians will face the consequences. The power of the voters is in the contribution of their ideas and actions far more than their ballot vote every four years or so. Official organizations and positions can be replaced by communities which are open to all to participate in. The unofficial ministries can call their own referendums and submit their own bills to elected MP’s when needed. In many cases the involvement of elected officials is not necessary, epistemic communities can guide policy through education and participatory discussion instead of official government policy.

Binding Chaos maps out a pretty compelling blueprint for a new way of structuring society; can we iterate towards it? Do you have ideas about fertile places to start? Whose job is it?

We have to start everywhere. It is everyone’s job to fight for their own autonomy and their own freedom to participate where they feel most excited and fulfilled. The world right now is full of people breaking out of the boundaries set for them, whether they are joining plenums in Bosnia or autodefensas in Mexico, scaling borders between Morocco and Melilla, breaking into a US nuclear weapons plant like 85 year old Sister Megan Rice, making themselves personally responsible for feeding and sheltering homeless people like OpSafeWinter, or fighting for justice for another human like the Free Omar Khadr Now group. Every person who decides to conduct their lives in a way that makes better sense to them and refuses to accept the status quo is participating. Not all ideas will be good, but if we all try we can iterate towards something that is better. And if we all try we can’t be stopped.

Have you had any thoughts about tools to enable this transition? Have you seen any promising approaches?

Collaborative problem solving tools like Loomio, etherpads and many others emerging now are a great help in shaping the way we work. Our methodologies need to change, and these tools will teach the new methodologies to a great extent. We need tools which are free of corporate or centralized control, which are part of their user communities and responsive to them. Organic community cooperatives like Loomio and Lorea are wonderful examples of responsive tool development.

I talked a bit in Binding Chaos about Twitter, Klout and other social media and their tendency to replicate and exaggerate our societal tendencies towards oligarchies. Digital currencies also currently facilitate our trade economy with almost all of its flaws intact. The social influence and currency algorithms both need to be re-examined to not just replicate our old methods but create new ways of interacting and relating to each other. An expiring currency would help to create a more sharing economy. A social influence algorithm that rewarded less on attracting celebrity attention and more on boosting unheard voices would change the impact of celebrity influence. We need more experimentation with the fundamental concepts behind influence and currency.

One of the key areas I would love to see progress is in knowledge repositories as global commons. We can’t have open, permeable epistemic communities on platforms with centralized control. The news will remain as transient spectacle until we have the tools to build knowledge from that information. Wikipedia by itself is not stigmergy, it is a tightly controlled cooperative. We need innovation in data modeling tools that will scale and connect and are not under centralized or corporate control.

What do you think can be done to create safe spaces online? Where have you seen this work well?

We have a lot of work to do first to decide what our definition of safe is. There is a sliding scale between free speech and freedom from the hate speech which is paradoxically a form of censorship. It is interesting to see different populations gravitate to different tools for playing with public influence, amplification and interaction depending on their ideas of where the ideal position on the scale is. I don’t think comfort levels are ever going to be uniform for different people and applications. Diversity of options and freedom from outside spying and control are essential.

Despite the obvious issues with Twitter it is the most interesting place to watch for global political communication, the only place you can publicly see politicians and participants in wars communicating with their opponents. Watching Twitter fights between Israeli forces and Gazans, the M23 militia and the FARDC military in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda politicians and the son of the man they are accused of just assassinating pushes the boundaries of communication about as far as I can imagine. To see these conversations cut short by censorship would be a huge loss.

There has been a great deal of discussion about trolls on Twitter and elsewhere, but they are to some extent the bottom feeders that keep the pond clean and are very self correcting in a troll eats troll platform. In a platform designed around celebrity and majority influence the unpopular opinions are left to the trolls so they are essential. The worst offenders in the name of free speech are those posting child abuse and other violations of privacy and personal integrity. In a self governed and open platform they can be dealt with by either the majority or a vigilante minority with support from law enforcement where crime is committed. The vigilante aspect is quickly reversed and turned on the vigilante if the public feels it is not justified. If a society agrees that certain behaviour cannot have anonymity it won’t for long. It is possible to design a platform where proxy routing anonymity can be tied to social approval so it would not be up to centralized control to decide.

A society with extreme free speech is too uncomfortable for many so it is essential to have both quiet places to work and open forums uncensorable by anything but public opinion and existing laws against child abuse and similar. Also essential is permeability, especially to influential forums. We now have a permanent Nemesis in astroturfing campaigns and attempts to game influence, plus spam. We have to somehow detect and block all that white noise while still maintaining both anonymity and ease of entry. This is definitely one of the most challenging puzzles we have to deal with right now, both socially and echoed in our tools.

How can we support your work?

In the interest of practicing what I preach, I have tried to not trade any of my work by manufacturing scarcity or withholding effort. It is my hope that people will one day pay for value already received by using the donate buttons at the top right on my blog instead of expecting a Kickstarter type campaign or funding drives. I also hope ideas will one day travel through peer promotion and knowledge bridges, not through personal brands or corporate promotion, so I do nothing with my work besides posting it on my blog. People who donate, share my work, use Amazon to share with prisoners, talk about it, translate it and encourage others to support it, leave me free to write and are very appreciated, even more since they are actively changing the world by using the methods described in Binding Chaos.

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