The never-ending US election frenzy has created a new binary in the world that sits as uncomfortably as the old US binary of black and white and much more oddly than the older binaries of good and evil or rich and poor. The new binary is left and right, now applied globally even in places where neither exist. The political spectrum is no longer either political or a spectrum. It is now two extremely hardened endogroups with two entrenched endorealities. Each has an ideology that must be chanted with glazed eyes and fixed smile and defended to the death. Each has the negative image of possible doubters or less enthusiastic participants.
Simply reflecting reality from an endo-ideal instead of considering it and looking for evidence is a very dangerous strategy, especially in times where state-corporate-criminal (is there a difference?) forces are all vying for influence. The reason all of these powers prefer people to be on social media instead of an information focused platform (which still does not exist) is because of the ease of targeted manipulation of populations. This is the value in harvesting personal data. First, people are targeted for polarization. When they have succumbed to endoreality, they have also succumbed to an occupation of their thoughts and a sublation of their will by an outside entity.
Those in thrall to endoreality no longer even have to be convinced of anything; they will just blindly reflect. Even worse, they will defend those who manipulate them to the death.
As I mentioned in the first newsletter, I am working on the next three books of the ontology quartet and as I promised in the last newsletter, this post will talk about the one I will be publishing next. The first book in this quartet was The Creation of Me, Them and Us and it looked at the nature of the self and how that affected our behaviour and social structures. The next is called Abstracting Divinity and it will look at everything we know or can theorize about life and how it affects every aspect of our institutions and social structures. Some of the many questions looked at are:
What is life?
What laws govern the nature of life?
How do these laws affect our behaviour?
How do these laws, which should govern the social sciences, relate to the laws of the physical sciences?
In order to explain where I am in the timeline of completing these books, I need to explain how I work. Most people assume I start with a plan, design a framework and skeleton draft and fill it in like a normal person. Sadly, no.
So after over six years of wishing I still had you all to talk to, I’ve decided to do something about it. Social media is exhausting, threatening, annoying and time-consuming, but interesting people are necessary and fun. Writing in an absolute vacuum is not fun and what I am writing is probably now unintelligible because I am so in my own head. So here’s my plan and it’s open for discussion.
For those who don’t know, I am writing a series of books all at once. It is kind of like being pregnant with a dozen babies at once but only being able to birth them at a rate of one every year or two. I’d give a lot to be able to speed up the process and get at least the first quartet finished and out there in months, not years. I also think I’d better start getting feedback before I hit publish on some of this.
In order to move at a reasonable speed, I need more time writing. Since my writing is (ahem) only appreciated by an exclusive audience, it doesn’t exactly pay the rent. Neither does it pay for such luxuries as decent book covers, translations, audio etc. If you’d like to help me deliver these books faster and in better form it would be very appreciated.
How I’d like to accomplish the above is by bringing back the Binding Chaos community and giving it a place to grow. I know a lot of you are very frustrated because you like the ideas but you have no one to talk to about them. A lot of you also would like to clarify some points or provide feedback and your emails and messages go unanswered far too often (sorry!).
So I am going to use a lot of the tools that Patreon now has (Discord, Discourse, WordPress limited access) and create a Patreon community where we can experiment with more open, two-way communication, where people can get involved at the level they choose but without the trolls and imaginative death threats of social media. Kind of like an epistemic community! Here it is, check it out.
I’m excited, I hope you’re excited and we can build something that really works for all of us.
In your opinion, which criteria should be used to define fake news for the purposes of scoping the problem?
A simpler method would be to define non-fake news. Non-fake news is that which emanates from complete, open, sourced, audited information on a topic. By this definition, almost all news is fake news, but it doesn’t have to be. If we create platform-independent knowledge repositories which link, source and verify news from all sources by topic, any news which emanates from that source is not fake news. This will allow us to share news that may be as simplistic and incomplete as a meme, but still links to a complete, verifiable source. It also allows information from epistemic communities whose knowledge is at an elite level to be distilled down to any level of interest without losing truth, context or verifiability.
Please specify which categories of fake news are more likely to cause harm to society.
All categories of intentional disinformation are harmful. You could add corporate advertising and state propaganda but intentional disinformation should stand alone without qualifiers. Knowledge is necessary for democracy and must be recognized as a human right along with free speech and free press. An uninformed vote is a coerced vote. People who have lost trust or access to knowledge will blindly follow demagogues and ideology as we are increasingly seeing.
What are the main economic, social and technology-related factors which, in the current news media landscape, contribute to the increasing spread of fake news?
The design of the web is centred around personalities and organizations (instead of information) which makes it impossible to collaborate at the data level or have platform-independent information. This allows information to be owned by technology companies and locked away from information on other platforms. This contributes greatly to self-perpetuating thought bubbles of biased information which translates to increased bigotry and misunderstanding offline.
Additionally, platform dependency means there is no way to link all perspectives on a topic together or easily source where an information snippet originated. Information filtering is left up to easily manipulated corporate algorithms instead of human trust networks which allows bot farms to flood platforms and make real news impossible to find. Celebrity is amplified over expertise.
Why are measures taken by tech companies not so effective in combating fake news?
They are far more easily manipulated by tech savvy misinformation campaigns than by the casual users who are a target of misinformation and they just decrease the public trust in information which is already at a crisis level. People do not have time to verify all the news they read so they will stop believing anything, especially since ‘debunking’ claims are now a favourite way to spread misinformation.
What precautions should readers take when reading and sharing news online?
It is unrealistic to expect all readers to invest all of the time required to fact check all of the information they ingest every day. Expecting this of them will just further erode their trust in any information and their engagement on important topics.
A study to measure the level of factual news believed by users of each platform would be very helpful in identifying the thought bubbles created on each platform and how resilient each is against fact checking.
What should be done to reduce the spread of disinformation online?
The current lack of trust in information is the single biggest crisis facing democracies. A universal database commons is needed which can help to create a platform-independent, collaborative, knowledge repository as explained in the links at end and on http://www.getgee.xyz/
Which measures could online platforms take in order to improve users’ access to reliable information and prevent the spread of disinformation online?
It isn’t the job of online platforms. Corporate monopolies over information filtering is a very bad idea. We need independent collaborative knowledge repositories which are only possible with a platform-independent universal database.
We need a platform-independent universal database commons.
Also, if dedicated bot armies are detected, they should not be just deleted. Those streams should be archived and accessible to researchers who want to compare what ideas and stories are being pushed by what networks.
In your view, which measures could news media organizations take in order to improve the reach of reliable information and prevent the spread of disinformation online?
Participate in creating online collaborative knowledge repositories. Collaborate with other news organizations and other news sources. Encourage a more educated public with more in-depth articles.
New organizations are barely keeping their heads above water and must forego valuable investigative reporting for clickbait. A universal database would give them a new business model and more collaborative journalism, but governments need to recognize access to trustworthy information as an essential right under a democracy, as important as the right to vote, and support access to reliable information. This is not something news organizations can or will do on their own.
In your view, which measures could civil society organizations take in order to support reliable information and prevent the spread of disinformation online?
Again, this is not their job. Access to reliable information is a fundamental core of democracy and it is government’s job to ensure that the public can create information that is open, permeable, audited by the public and not controlled by corporate platforms. EU governments should support the infrastructure to create a universal database. Civil society organizations would then have a reasonable place to create verified, open knowledge which they do not have presently.
What actions, if any, should be taken by public authorities to counter the spread of fake news, and at what level (global, EU, national/regional) should such actions be taken?
We need a universal database commons which will allow us platform independent collaboration on information. Democratic public authorities should support this platform independent access to information as they support access to the internet, as a universal human right.
Well, I tried. Final report. Corporations and states manipulate social media to spread disinformation and escalate division and use that as a reason that corporations and states need more control over online dialogue.
Transcript (more or less) of keynote at RMLL, June 2017: We have free software. We need free databases. Discussing how to create a software ecosystem by decoupling information from applications with a universal database.
My name is Heather Marsh. I am a writer and a programmer and I have been studying and experimenting with methods of mass collaboration and the technology we use for collaboration for many years now. From 2010 to 2012 I was the administrator and editor in chief of the Wikileaks news site Wikileaks Central where I experimented with tying leaks to current news as a catalyst to create informed action. In 2012, I concentrated more on social media collaboration and I wrote a book called Binding Chaos about the methods of mass collaboration that were used to create mass movements. I am currently writing a book called Autonomy, Diversity, Society about some of the social issues and institutional structures preventing effective mass collaboration, particularly those involving knowledge industries like journalism, science and academia. And I am also developing a universal database and trust network called Getgee which will hopefully help with some of the issues I have been having for years around online collaboration.
So today I would like to first talk about how we collaborate online and then I would like to look at the technology we develop and how that affects collaboration. And then I’d like to review what a universal database is and why we need such a thing. These are all very big topics and I want to leave room for discussion at the end so I am going to touch very lightly on some areas. If you would like to know more about them, you can find me on youtube or my blog where these topics are explained in more detail, or read the books which are free online or send me an email.
What was it about the Internet that was so important and world changing?
Very often we think of the answer in terms of communication, but we don’t really communicate with all the people on the Internet on a one to one basis and reach consensus. This is a picture of what mass collaboration usually looks like, both online and offline. This method is called stigmergy as it says on the slide and I have written and talked a lot about stigmergy so you can find more information in my writing if you like, but basically, it is a method of action based collaboration that follows an idea.
If you look at this, there is no formal structure. There is just an idea or a goal that is reflected to everyone. This is the type of mass movement that can happen more or less spontaneously, sometimes very suddenly and very very effectively. Once this idea is released publicly, if people believe in it, they will follow it across cultures and generations and language barriers and it will be truly unstoppable. We have followed stigmergic movements throughout history for mass migrations, for adopting new technologies like pottery or Facebook, or for instilling moral principles or beliefs.
This isn’t the only method that can cause mass migrations and huge collaborative projects. For the last several thousand years, we have headed very relentlessly towards a very hierarchical and controlled structure for collaboration that happens very formally through appointed official channels and uses a system of sticks and carrots with coercion from military and money as rewards and punishments to drive us through these channels and direct our behaviour.
But the Internet allowed a sudden proliferation of stigmergic movements to spring up instantly and globally and scared a lot of powerful people very much and even removed some of them.
Imagine if these swallows were people – you can see why those trying to maintain authority would be very concerned, it doesn’t look like there is any sort of structure or predictability here. Communication on the Internet allowed us to return to this form of swarm movement which is really powerful, but at the same time very scary. In many ways, this looks like a new age of collaboration. We went from small local collaboration to highly structured so-called civilization and this is a whole new thing, even though stigmergy is a method of collaboration that has been with us forever, it has never been at this scale or speed. So it is important we learn how to help these movements guide themselves, and when we design tools that assume we are going to use direct communication or votes or consensus, they are not going to work for us, not for mass movements.
The single biggest factor I’ve found for whether or not someone will participate in a stigmergic action is whether they are sure of the idea leading it. Not whether it affects them, or if its simple to grasp or easy or even safe to do. I have created many actions where the audience was completely removed from the people affected or where the action was dangerous or very difficult to understand or even initially believe. None of this mattered. All that mattered in whether the action was a success was whether people could be sure the goal is sound. And the easiest way for someone to prevent action is to sow doubt in the goal. So this initial seed that makes up the idea is the key to every mass movement.
If you look at this as a form of governance, we aren’t going to be governed by people, we are going to be governed by ideas. So our job in information technology is world governance. How we present and filter ideas directs these mass movements far more than politicians do. People will run in the mazes we give them to run in, so when we are designing tools for collaboration and communication it is very important that we get this right and think about the implications of what we are building. We have to allow people the freedom to rise above these mazes of official channels but still protect themselves from being coerced by propaganda and ignorance.
So with our new scary power of mass collaboration we have also seen a change in how powerful people are attempting to coerce these mass movements. The old way, or the most recent way, of directing movements was with hard coercion. You will follow this idea or you will be burned at the stake. And we can put money in there as hard coercion as well because you will work in this mine or you will starve is pretty violent as well. In this structure ideas were very carefully controlled. After the printing press was invented, only those ideas approved by someone with a printing press got mass dissemination and it was much easier to control what was distributed.
Once we had mass communication, on the Internet, that all changed fairly overnight and took a lot of existing power by surprise. So we instantly saw powerful people attempting to use all the usual hard coercive methods to control these ideas that are starting mass movements, like murdering bloggers and censoring the Internet, but it was pretty apparent that this was not going to be a sustainable long term global solution to keep people in power. So for the last several years we have had a huge focus put on what I call seductive coercion, manipulation of how we think and how we react to these ideas. Seductive coercion uses fear, belonging, shunning, all of our most deeply felt emotions to drive us towards or away from ideas.
The first and easiest way to counter ideas is to conflate the idea with a person or ideology. If someone puts up an idea and other people say oh, that’s funded by so and so, or that’s neoliberalism or Marxism, many people will turn away from the idea before they even try to understand it. Alan Turing once described the campaign against him as: Turing believes machines think. Turing lies with men. Therefore machines cannot think. Anyone who has been on social media long enough can recognize his frustration.
Another favourite counter is noise, you can’t follow an idea you never hear so if you have an idea that powerful people don’t like, they can just drown it out. And another counter is confusion. If an idea is at a level of expertise too specialized for the average person to prove whether it’s true or false, someone can just say it doesn’t work or it has been rebutted. If most of the public can’t prove it one way or another, they can just call it fake news. We are overwhelmed right now with seductive coercion as well as noise and confusion on our current social media platforms and the purpose is to try to control these ideas that are all important in seeding stigmergic mass movements.
I don’t think seductive coercion and noise is a long term solution for guiding people away from or towards ideas. I think most of us are thoroughly fed up with fake news and bot farms yelling at us every time we go near the Internet. We need information we can trust for stigmergic organization to work and we need stigmergic organization because that’s the only way we are going to progress on a large scale in the future. Misleading information will encourage people to act against their own interests but a lack of trust in any information will immobilize them or encourage them to blindly follow demagogues or ideology.
We can’t afford to waste time like this and I think even many powerful people are starting to realize that maybe a very easily led public is not such a great thing after all. Theresa May keeps saying “Make no mistake, the fight is moving from the battlefield to the internet.” but she and others are recommending fighting with the old methods of hard coercion, they are calling for even tighter control over information and more official channels. This is an attempt to go backwards and we have burnt that bridge, we have no path open now but the one forward.
So the third method here is auto-coercion, coercion of each other as an informed society, which is a swarm method of reaching consensus. This is where I would like us to head and this is what, in my opinion, we need to be building technology for. We may or may not have reached a technological singularity yet but we have certainly reached a societal singularity. We need to collaborate with others even just to understand the news. We can’t all be experts at everything. So we can’t keep berating voters for not spending all of their time studying everything that affects them or electing politicians and expecting them to have all the answers. It’s impossible. We need to find a better solution. We need technology that allows us to put our faith wisely in information and this is going to require a completely different set of rules than the hierarchical official channels we have used in the past.
Ideas need to be audited and promoted by people qualified to understand them so I use this structure of concentric circles with epistemic communities in the centre and knowledge bridges to assist information flow and auditing. With knowledge bridges, you don’t have to have personal expertise on every aspect of society. All you have to do is have a transparent concentric circle that you can look at, you can see the activity, you can get feedback if necessary, and you can say yes, there are a lot of people auditing, there is a lot of discussion, I trust some of the people in these circles, I trust that they know what they are doing. Unless you don’t, in which case experts can also be created by the system itself as users develop knowledge and reputation and move towards the centre. Disagreements can result in a separate concentric circles being formed around the same problem to explore a different solution. If this all sounds familiar, it’s because this is exactly what happens in open source software communities.
Currently, other knowledge communities act like closed, internationally linked, affinity groups at a level of expertise not accessible to the general public. Science, academia and journalism are very far from acting as concentric circles and knowledge bridges integrating ideas back and forth with wider society so stigmergic action rarely results from their work and without stigmergy, their progress is not nearly what it could be. A people with no confidence in either their epistemic communities or their knowledge bridges is a people with no belief in ideas, and with no belief in ideas we will be immobilized or ruled by demagogues or ideology. Science, academia and journalism require two way knowledge bridges, transparency and free information if they are going to truly act as epistemic communities for us all and stimulate and inform mass action and they also require information focused technology to support them in that. So let’s look at where we went wrong.
We no longer live in a world dominated by either resource capitalism or industry. We live in a world dominated by information capitalism and information control.
“Data is the new oil” is a quote that has been going around investment circles for over 10 years now but data is more than just a product. With oil you could acquire money to drive people along the paths of hard coercive structures. With data you can lead far more people with seductive coercion or block them with noise and confusion. But even for people who haven’t quite grasped that information in this form can be used to wag the tail of an entire mass of humanity behind it, most people realize data is lucrative.
The last I checked, Alibaba was worth 265 billion US dollars. Amazon is worth over 400 billion. Even Uber is still worth 60 billion. Who has any idea what Facebook and Google are worth because they actually have mastered the true value of information. What makes all of these corporations so powerful and valuable is their control of information. When the world wide web was designed, it was a picture of academia. It was meant to allow isolated papers to cite other isolated papers, but the internet does not look like that. Those early pages have been used to create an Internet as a series of sealed wells. Even if we have access to everything on the surface, we do not have access to the information in these wells and to add insult to injury, we created all the information in those wells. And that data is used for public manipulation and seductive coercion, in ways ranging from monitoring our shopping habits to Facebook deciding to what mood we are in or whether we vote. That data under corporate control decides whether we are talking about political failures or Romphims and whether the resulting stigmergic actions are related to community support or consumerism.
No one should be gifting their innermost thoughts to allow coercion of public opinion by undemocratic entities who have only maximum profit for their shareholders as a guiding principle. No one should risk storing their personal data on a platform that sees their data as ‘the new oil’. Of course, this is not news to anyone here, but even though we all realize this, we haven’t been able to stop it.
The failure to replace the existing data mining platforms is partly the failure to differentiate between different types of data and their different requirements, so let’s go over that first.
Personal data: The goal here is security against dissemination. Ideally, we want to keep this off the Internet and if that is not possible, encrypt it and keep it under your control and easily deleted.
Personal messaging: The goal here is to know who you are talking to and keep your conversation private, so we treat this like personal data and add the fact that we need to be sure of who we are talking to.
Personal information and private messaging have both had had a lot of investment and thought put into them over the years. If we can get this data split out from the corporate data wells, we have a lot of options for this, like personal online data storage, and many similar options. These work but …
The idea here is you keep all your personal information in your own little PODS and it is always under your control and you choose where to share it and what to share, which is as it should be. But in a way this reminds me of when people were told they no longer had to work as slaves or serfs because they were free and could choose when to work for money. But then they found out that all the food and shelter was controlled by the money sources so it became not much of a choice, work or starve. And if all we do is take control of our own personal information, if we want to access other information and it is controlled by corporate interests, we will end up giving over our keys. And there will be no legal protection because we will be doing it voluntarily. Supposedly. We see this already in data access, we have the ability to block ads or cookies but then we get our access to information blocked so we don’t. So it is not enough to address personal data, we have to address public data as well.
The answer for public data is the same as personal data, we need to decouple application software from the data to regain control and we need some sort of a data commons. There is a huge wealth of data on the internet right now that is not personal data but it shouldn’t be corporate data either, it is our information that we have produced collaboratively over many years. If we are ever going to move towards an open information system with concentric circles and knowledge bridges and collaboration open to everyone, we are going to have to achieve this, off a corporate web platform, so let’s look at our data types again.
Personality focused we don’t really need to look at, we’ve got that covered. The goal in a personality focused platform is promotion of personalities (or brands), so official blue checks and followers assembled around social media reality shows. Social media is almost universally personality focused and that is why social media is so frustrating for anyone attempting to collaborate around information.
With Information focused data, the goal is research, auditing and dissemination of information. At best we can use Wikipedia, mainstream media sometimes and specialized research platforms. There is a huge need for information centred solutions, especially when you consider how many people are trying to facilitate this work on personality focused social media and how frustrating this is. Social media was created in a time when we left all information focused work to the experts, but especially twitter immediately became a place where everyone got involved and tried to create concentric circles of auditing, feedback and amplification, but because it is focused around personalities instead of information it is forever frustrating for this use.
Public data. The goal here is freedom from censorship or other deletion or modification. So the dead opposite of what should be the goals for personal data and if someone is offering you the solution to both on one platform, run as fast as you can. Most applications with a primary goal of making data public use peer to peer with or without blockchain, or censorship resilient platforms of some sort. It is very easy to put up public data in a very resilient and even semi-immutable way on a peer to peer system.
The problem is, if you combine this need with Broadcasting we have an added goal of wide dissemination. You can put information up, but getting a lot of people to find it is difficult unless traditionally you have some sort of index that will search through this data and offer some sort of centralized list. The last time someone did that on a large scale they called it Google. As soon as you have a centralized index like that, your data can be as decentralized as you like, all that means is you get to pay for hosting. If you still can’t be found except by going through the indexing server then we still have a problem of centralization. There are other methods of finding each other, but with other issues, which we’ll get to under collaboration.
Broadcasting is also where we get too much misinformation, spam, noise, confusion, seductive coercion, all those things we talked about earlier. The way many information producers and politicians, and sadly some regulatory bodies, want to tackle this is to attach DRM at the data level with the goal of preventing copying or facilitating built in micro-payments. This is again an attempt to take us back to that highly regulated structure that we already burned the bridge from and the implications in this case are too seriously dystopian for me to even start to get into here.
If we want a world where the general public is both participating in and trusts expert information – and we do, the lack of an informed public is the biggest issue facing us today – we need to get away from this idea that anyone is going to own information or the access to it. Information has to be a basic human right for all, it is our key to understanding our world. There is no point in being able to vote if we don’t understand what we are voting for.
Another point we have to deal with for public data is the typical peer to peer application is Read only for fairly obvious reasons. If you want to design a Collaborative platform that can scale, your concerns are going to be things like latency compensation, optimistic UI, speed, and the ability for multiple simultaneous editors. All these goals of a seamless collaborative front end performance do not correlate with a back end trying to serve peer to peer data. So broadcasting collaborative public data is a tough one.
Then we have the whole structural issue. A lot of people feel the solution to the data mining wells we saw earlier is federation or a form of decentralization that allows everyone to run their own instance of an application. First of all, we can all stand up our own wikis but Wikipedia exists, centralization happens. Second, the goal here is to escape dependency on one server or platform, but most of these solutions just create multiple little centralized servers or platforms, each with their own tyrannical or benevolent admins. They also make your data impossible to delete if they are linked to other instances and by eliminating central control they also eliminate central responsibility that you can complain to.
These alternatives are usually addressing technical issues and ignoring the personal ones. A microblogging instance, a sub-reddit and an irc channel are all technically very different but they all feel very alike and they are all trying to be all things to all people. Their users do not have control of the data, but it isn’t truly public either. They aren’t the right choice for private messaging, but neither are they the best choice for public broadcasting. They are personality focused and hopeless for information gathering but they are not a good celebrity vehicle either. They are decentralized by server (theoretically) but the data is not decoupled from software. They don’t support mass collaboration and they create thought bubbles where outside opinions aren’t welcomed.
So Decoupled data is where I think we need to go before anything to handle all the very different and frequently opposing requirements of these different types of information. The goal here is freedom from corporate ownership of data, freedom from software dependency, data reusability and versatility of use. Data is separated from application software and is agnostic to what applications are used to access it. For this we need a universal database which is why I am working on that.
Our greatest need is for a collaborative information commons, for open journalism, for open science, and just for fun. We need a place where the data is not personal data but it is not corporate data either. We need a place where the application software is decoupled from the data but the data is all still linked. And I really believe that this isn’t a “here is a great marketing opportunity” need it is a “will we avoid human extinction” need, we are completely programmed by the information we receive and if we want to avoid errors on a massive scale we need to provide our new mass movements with accurate information that they can trust.
Now we have covered what we need and why we need it, all we have to is design it with the technology available to us today.
We need a set of core data objects to be in a public data commons. These are the objects that link all of our information together. In my research with existing applications, there are five types of data object that we deal with which are Person, Event, Organization, Idea and Thing. In addition to this there are media objects which we use as sources for our information. So our public, universally accessible, read only, data consists of these objects.
We also have classification standards of different types of these data objects and the possible relationships between them. Again, anyone can create classification trees but once they are used by a third party they can’t be deleted or modified. Once you share an idea you can’t delete it from anyone else’s brain, it is now commons data.
Universal data objects are pretty meaningless if we don’t actually say anything about them. So constellations are a collaborative space where we establish relationships between data objects, link media sources to support the relationships and classify data objects and their relationships. This is our own autonomous space but if you click on a universal data object it will show you all the constellations that have used that data object. If you clicked on an event node for this conference, it could show a constellation for all free software conferences this year, all software conferences in France, all events in St Etienne in July, any constellation that included this event node would be listed. So even though this is a collaborative space which allows you to decide who you want to work with, the results are transparent and easily found by anyone looking at any topics that you’ve referenced.
Which is nice except we really don’t want to see all the data on the Internet. Neither do we want to leave it up to a centralized index what we see, so we need a trust network to help us filter spam and people we don’t find very knowledgeable and that trust network needs to be under our control. A trust network means if we set our search to 0 degrees of trust we will only see data that we personally have explicitly trusted. If we set it to one degree we will see data trusted by those we trust and so on. This is great for those people who say they want open science and open knowledge but really they are uncomfortable without official accreditation. They can filter their own information by whatever accreditation they choose, but they can’t stop the other information from existing and they can’t stop anyone else from seeing it.
This also brings mass collaboration back because we don’t have to personally know everyone we are working with if we are careful with our trust network. If someone sabotages a work project, obviously they are going to be untrusted very quickly by whoever brought them in or that person will be untrusted themselves, but there is no need to reach consensus over who is or isn’t trustworthy and assign them a blue check, we all decide for ourselves whether someone else’s network is worth linking to our own.
So now we have all of this information in a data commons which can be linked together and sourced, so we have transparency and multiple viewpoints. No one can create a thought bubble and filter out information but they can choose not to see it themselves or work with it if their network deems it untrustworthy.
So now we have broken everything up and we no longer have a web page or an app, we have an ecosystem. At the bottom we have a universal data commons of public data which contains all of our core data objects. Also universal are the classification trees which data analysts can create to help us provide more meaning and classification standards. Then we have our collaborative space where researchers, journalists, scientists, lawmakers, organizers, or anyone else can create meaningful information from all this data without harassment from spam but with full transparency to the public. And we have our personal trust networks where if we choose, we can set filters on what we see.
Now you can search, merge, and filter that data to get only the information you need. Suppose you want a taxi driver. You can merge taxi driver collective constellations, you can search for ones in your area and then you can filter them within two degrees of your trust network. Then you can download that read only galaxy onto your phone, download an app that shows you which of them are near and pays them. And we just took the last sixty billion dollars worth of value from Uber and put local control back with taxi driver collectives. Software application become simply that, easily replaceable applications which provide some functionality such as paying a taxi driver or buying a product. They have no control over data any more and they can be easily replaced.
Instead of transient news, new information is added to a permanent knowledge repository so it encourages deeper research over trivial updates. There is no need to cut and paste the same news repeatedly if it is all linked. We can have more fluid collaboration between journalists because they retain autonomy and credit for their own work but their research is automatically linked with everyone working on the same topic and it can be combined in galaxies. Because the data is in a usable format instead of just wall of text articles, we can import it to other applications and combine and filter it to create more information. So we get far deeper meaning and more context and usability and collaboration from the same research effort.
Organizations can use constellations and galaxies for dynamic reorganization. The responsible person can change at the constellation level and the change will be instantly reflected in all associated galaxies. It is also easy to plug in collaborative apps at the galaxy or the constellation levels to allow groups to work without outside noise but remain completely transparent to the public.
Rather than relying on site reviews and trust algorithms we can rely on our own personal trust networks for recommendations. Local or specialized merchants can create constellations to link each other together in a trust network as well, adding another local layer of accountability and control over industry and the ability to allow regional diversity for local laws or customs.
Instead of relying on NGOs, charities and non-profits, we can use our own trust networks to provide aid directly where it is needed and receive feedback directly from those receiving aid.
We can establish direct trade relationships between communities which will allow consumers to see the immediate impact of our trade choices.
Instead of a closed circle of academia in which paper citations can be reflections of power or reciprocity, Idea nodes can be set up around any topic and all contributions heard.
Principles of a society from constitutions and bills of rights can be easily accessible for every member of society and we can then ensure that all law in that society flows naturally from the accepted root principles. It is also possible to use accepted principles to choose association, for instance to refuse trade with a corporation that refuses to accept certain environmental or human rights practices.
With a universal data commons we can collaborate effectively and intelligently and solve the problems we are facing with far greater speed and accuracy. We can all be much better informed and able to easily see the original sources and all related information on a subject from all perspectives. This will provide us with the ability to be self correcting, even in our mass movements. We can have auto-coercion.
The Internet is being redesigned. This is a moment when we urgently need to design our own Charter of the Forest and establish our rights around our commons information. We had this moment before when the Internet first appeared and it seemed destined to become a corporate controlled platform and we made possibly the best decision in our history by having the Internet be a global commons, which is now recognized as a universal human right, but the only reason access to the Internet is important is because it provides access to information. The only reason freedom of speech is important it it allows us to transmit information. We need to recognize information itself as a universal human right and write code that facilitates that. I think I’d better stop here so there is hopefully some time for questions but if anyone is interested in this project, or you know someone who may be interested with this project, please contact me.
Transcript (more or less) from The evolution of democracy: Explaining Trump, Brexit and the Colombia peace deal, a keynote to launch the Inteligencia Colectiva para la Democracia in Madrid, November, 2016.
My name is Heather Marsh. I am a writer and a programmer and I have been studying and experimenting with both local activism and methods of mass communication and collaboration for many years now. From 2010 to 2012 I was the administrator and editor in chief of the Wikileaks news site Wikileaks Central where I experimented with creating knowledge repositories, tying that information to things that were happening in the news and creating action based on that information. News without action is just voyeurism and action without information creates a very easily manipulated public, so I was trying to bring the two together in one place. In 2012 I concentrated more social media collaboration and I wrote a first book called Binding Chaos about all the problems I had seen while working with Wikileaks, Occupy, Anonymous, M15 and many other mass movements in recent years. We all seemed to be coming up against the same issues with hierarchy, direct democracy, consensus and collaboration. As I kept working on various projects it became apparent that we as societies had been butting heads for millenia on these same issues which really come down to trying to create a balance between autonomy, diversity and society, which is the title of my next book. And along the way I have been thinking of what tools we would require to help us achieve this balance, and the primary one I have been working on is a universal database and trust network called Getgee.
So today what I would like to talk about are some ideas from Binding Chaos and a little bit from Autonomy, Diversity, Society which will hopefully help when we are thinking about creating products for mass communication and mass collaboration. The focus is on creating a balance between personal autonomy of those doing the work, diversity of ideas and solutions and allowing the participation of the whole society.
How many people here have heard of a technological singularity? A technological singularity is something IT people and science fiction writers have liked to talk about for years. The idea is that we will reach a point, or have already reached a point, where technology is beyond the scope of human understanding and artificial intelligence will be programming itself, in a Skynet sort of world. It’s funny, people have been talking about this for years, but not many have noticed or acknowledged that we have instead reached a completely different type of singularity which is a societal singularity. We have reached a point where no one can understand every aspect of society which affects them. If you go back in history, crafts people could know everything there is to know about their jobs and people could know everything that went on in their villages but this is just not true any more. And even our villages and neighbourhoods are not autonomous, they are all connected now at some level with all the other communities in the whole world, even uncontacted tribes.
We need to collaborate with others not only to develop tools but even just to understand the news. We have to put our faith in other people and believe in what they tell us or trust in their skill to create their components if we are building a product. As programmers we have been used to working as an ecosystem like this for years, we always have to incorporate other people’s work and their bugs into our own, but this has spread to almost every aspect of public life. And this is one of the biggest challenges in creating tools for democracy. We can’t have real direct democracy or self governance any more because none of us can understand every aspect of everything. We need to rely on collaboration instead and this is going to require a completely different set of rules than we have used in the past. We need more than simple referendums and voting to govern ourselves this way. We need to somehow create nuanced and detailed information we can trust and we need to coordinate goals with people we will never speak to.
There are two main areas to talk about which are idea based collaboration and action based collaboration. The challenge in a societal singularity is how to allow all people to participate and communicate but still be able to filter signal from noise and how to allow people democratic choice but still retain worker autonomy.
First of all, let’s look at mass action based collaboration.
For action based tasks, the model that has become almost ubiquitous is the competitive hierarchical model. Most of us are all too familiar with this model. The typical response to a situation which requires an action is to create a noun, in the form of an organization, government body, or an official person and the focus is always on the organization and the personalities involved instead of the action. The hierarchy creates what I call personality based systems, as opposed to idea or action based systems. A new idea in a personality based system remains completely bound to the owner until it is legally transferred to another owner. All contributors work for the owner, not the idea, and you have to wait on one specific person for approval or direction at each level so there are bottle necks everywhere.
Most workers do not enjoy hierarchical systems as they lose autonomy, mastery and creative control over their own work, they just become an instrument under somebody else’s direction. The orders come from the top down and so there is very little diversity of ideas and we lose all the talent and ideas downstream. Because it is a closed system, collaboration between people does not happen unless they are hired by the same project. Competition is the opposite of mass collaboration. It’s really people working against each other, not together. So there is no autonomy, no diversity and no society.
The alternative to competition has traditionally been cooperation. Cooperative groups try to replace the top down hierarchy with a group consensus driven system which allows diversity of opinion at the top.
This is most effective only in groups of two to eight people. For groups larger than 25, cooperation is extremely slow. It is still a personality based system. An idea in a cooperative must be approved by the entire group, both on initiation and at each stage of development. The majority of energy and resources are spent on communication, persuasion, and personality management, and a power struggle can derail the whole project.
It can be dominated by extroverted personalities who make decisions to control the work of others and are very justly resented by those doing the actual work. Cooperatives frequently use consensus or votes to make decisions for the entire group. These methods may not produce the best results, particularly in large groups, as many people may not understand the work if they are not actually doing it and they may demand things they would never be willing to do themselves. The feeling of the workers at the bottom is no different whether there is a horizontal or a hierarchical structure making the decisions, the workers still have no personal autonomy.
Both competitive and cooperative projects will die if the group that runs the project leaves and both will attract or repel contributors based on the personalities of the existing group. Both are hierarchical systems where individuals need to seek permission to contribute. Both focus on the authority of personalities to approve a decision instead of focusing on the idea or action itself. So we have a society, at least within the group, but not without, but we still have no autonomy and because of the need to reach consensus there is also no diversity of product.
This isn’t in any way to say that cooperative and consensus driven systems are bad. They are actually the most comfortable way of working in small groups who know each other and have similar styles and share a goal, but they are very difficult to scale. As soon as you have a very large group of people with opposing viewpoints and personalities that don’t mesh, it is very difficult to get anything done.
I use stigmergy to describe a method of action based collaboration that is suitable for mass movements. I didn’t make up this awful word by the way, it is lifted from biology where it describes indirect communication and collaboration among ants and termites and various other creatures. In human movements, it allows diversity of methods and autonomy for workers while still putting the ultimate authority of choice with the whole society, to try to achieve that balance we talked of earlier. It is neither competitive nor cooperative. It is action based collaboration instead of personality based.
A system is stigmergic if
– it follows one goal
– it is completely transparent
– it is open to everyone to participate, at least within the user group
– the output is free for anyone to use and improve on
Stigmergy gives people autonomy over their own work. With stigmergy, an initial idea is freely given, and the project is driven by the idea, not by a personality or group of personalities. So no one needs permission, like they would in a competitive system, or consensus like they would in a cooperative, to initiate a project. There is no need to discuss or vote on the idea. If an idea is exciting or necessary it will attract interest and the interest attracted will be from people willing to contribute so those with more involvement in the idea will automatically have greater influence through their contributions.
There are no official authorities but the power of the user group still exists in the ability to accept or reject the work.
Workers are free to create regardless of acceptance or rejection. Drastically innovative ideas almost never receive instant mainstream acceptance so leaving control of work to group consensus only cripples innovation. When we allow anyone to contribute we also have a great diversity of talent and people can step up to further the goal in ways the originator never imagined.
So here we have full autonomy and diversity but the entire society still has the ultimate choice.
Where is stigmergy? We have always had stigmergy in our social lives and it has been behind most mass movements that have had any success. You can see it wherever groups of diverse people who do not belong to any formal organization or have any formal communication with each other are all working together to carry out a goal.
If you look at something like the civil rights movement in the United States, that is a multi-generational movement of so many people and so many different methods and everyone who has contributed, whether they are groups or individuals, has decided for themselves how they can be most effective. If this stigmergy chart was for that movement, that big group can be the Million Man March, the square is Malcolm X and his followers, the heart can be MLK, and between them all by themselves is Ruby Bridges or Rosa Parks, none of them had to communicate or come to consensus but they are all trying for the same goal and are more or less aware of each other’s activity. The US still hasn’t reached that goal so they go through periods of great upheaval followed by periods of more calm working, depending on whether an event sparks more action or something blocks progress for a while.
A stigmergic movement will continue as long as the goal is not reached and people still share it, even if it dies down or goes dormant for a bit. That is the advantage to an idea based system over a personality based one, you can’t kill an idea.
Or another stigmergic idea is freedom of information. This has everyone from the free software movement, creative commons and similar open copyright groups, Sci-Hub which liberates scientific papers, other filesharing sites, Wikipedia, even the Internet itself in its original inception might be considered a node in that stigmergic movement.
What keeps these movements from burning out, like so many do in the massive assemblies, is the fact that they are not spending all their energy communicating except in small groups and they are following one clear idea.
It is not often you find one organization or group that is purely stigmergic, but Anonymous is one. This is why they say they are not an organization or group. They usually say they are an idea, but they aren’t really one idea either, they are a method of mass collaboration and the method is stigmergy. That method allows everyone to follow whatever ideas they choose, in groups or individually with perfect autonomy. Anonymous never tries to reach consensus. Anonymous is not unanimous. And there is no organization you can order to do something, Anonymous is also not your personal army. You have to just put an idea out and see who follows it.
It may seem difficult to figure out how stigmergy can be used in a corporate setting where everything is set up around organizations and official people, but it helps if we remember that each of those organizations, no matter how they are organized internally, can be a node under a stigmergic idea. I am often asked if Wikipedia is a good example of stigmergy and no, it is not. Wikipedia is a cooperative. You may contribute work without asking anyone but your work can be thrown out and you can be locked out of contributing, or the topic locked, and there is a definite personality based hierarchy and a need to reach consensus around one final product. There is no diversity of product tolerated and there isn’t any real autonomy either.
But Wikipedia is still one of many nodes under the idea of Freedom of information because what they produce is completely free for anyone else to use or modify. I said earlier that Anonymous was stigmergic but Anonymous very frequently works with other people like news or human rights organizations or other hacking collectives such as Redhack who are themselves internally communist. It doesn’t matter what the internal organization of each node is as long as they are all following the same idea and their work is available for everyone else to use.
So the same methods can be used for corporate work. The key is for corporate style organizations to recognize what stigmergic ecosystem they are a part of and follow the guidelines to make their work contribute smoothly to that idea. One place where stigmergic development has really taken off is in the IT industry because free software has meant that the output is available for everyone to use and improve or modify. If we look at one stigmergic idea: We need better web development tools. If we had left this to Google, and Google had been acting like their competitive corporate selves, we would have just had the Angular framework, and progress would be Angular 2.0. And we do have Angular 2.0, but we also have Facebook’s React, Ember and many others. As long as the user group has not reached consensus over what tools we want for full stack development we have many contributors creating different frameworks for us.
When we start to reach wide consensus in some area, like yes, we don’t want any more black and purple websites with green sparkles and the vast majority of us are going to create websites that are very uniform, we start to see more and more conformity around standards like Twitter’s bootstrap styles but as soon as someone has a very divergent idea that people find interesting again, like Google’s material design, many people will start hacking on it and trying to create different solutions again. The same periodic upheavals of innovation and change are apparent here as in the social movements driven by stigmergy. In this case HTML5 and ES6 stimulated a rush in web development tools in general.
Of course this example of corporate stigmergy has some major issues., first in who is getting paid and who is not. Google employees are and free software programmers frequently are not. And even with free software, when you have players like Facebook and Google and Twitter it is going to be a bit hard for anyone without their development team budget and user groups to compete so it is not a level playing field for all to participate, but as long as the code is commons property we can have consensus without monopoly which is a huge improvement. It is starting to approach stigmergic organization, just from the addition of this one change, of software that is free for anyone to use or modify. You can see this especially as you move away from the big corporations to the later development add ons, in all the diverse people writing packages and tools for React and Angular and the other frameworks.
This is better than academia and science manage. They are supposed to be stigmergic as well, the idea in science and academia is that everyone is supposed to publish and build off each others findings, but because they do not have open source and permissive copyright or even access, their work is frequently corporate IP property, and they don’t allow or reward outside contributions, they are very far from stigmergic and their progress is not nearly what it could be. If we look back at the principles of stigmergic organization, the last three of four points do not apply to science and academia so they both need to change if they are going to truly act as epistemic communities for us all. Which brings us to my next point which is about idea based collaboration.
We have stigmergy for action based collaboration which follows an idea, but what if we want to collaborate on ideas themselves, to build knowledge and find some most reliable facts? If we look at the 2010-2011 movements, like M15 and later Occupy and all the rest, they were fine with action based collaboration, especially when they used stigmergy, but they really struggled when it came to idea based collaboration, like setting goals. This is kind of important since without the ideas, you don’t have the action. Stigmergy follows ideas and information, so management of the ideas and information here is as important as management of personalities is in competitive or cooperative systems. If you think of this in a governance context, we won’t be electing personalities, we will be electing ideas.
To see what happens when an idea loses its clarity, or its idea has been co-opted, look at feminism. The civil rights movement in the US retained its clarity because it has set specific goals in each cycle whether that is to end slavery, end segregation, or end police violence. When feminism meant fighting for the vote and legal personhood it had a clear goal and was a stigmergic mass movement but second wave feminism allowed itself to become a noun instead of an action, its goals became very loose and because there wasn’t a clear goal it was used to advertise corporate product and promote prominent personalities, primarily from the United States, who felt they could speak for every woman in the world on every topic. A noun is not a stigmergic goal, a noun is an organization, so when feminism became a noun it stopped being a stigmergic movement and became a competitive, personality driven, organization which became completely divided, as is typical, these types of organizations do not scale.
The single biggest factor I’ve found for whether or not someone will participate in a stigmergic action is whether they are sure of the idea behind it. Not whether it affects them, or if its simple to grasp or easy or even safe to do. I have created many actions where the audience was completely removed from the people affected or where the action was dangerous or very difficult to understand or even initially believe. None of this mattered. All that mattered in whether the action was a success was whether people could be sure the goal is sound. And the easiest way for someone to prevent action is to sow doubt in the goal. That initial kernel that makes up the idea looks simple but it is everything. But finding the information we need for conviction in our goals is not easy.
If we think of a large population creating a knowledge repository stigmergicly, we have a picture of a bunch of ants sifting and sorting information and putting the best in a pile. And that’s probably how we thought we were going too do things on Twitter. But that’s not how expert knowledge, like the kind we have in a singularity, works and it’s why a bunch of people in a horizontal group can’t just do that. Especially a personality dominated horizontal group like Occupy or any direct democracy that starts from the premise of all voices and opinions being equal. This goes back to the idea behind a societal singularity, we can’t all be experts at everything and we don’t want to be either. We don’t have the time and we may not have the interest. We can’t keep berating voters for not spending all of their time studying everything that affects them, it’s impossible and it’s not fun either. We need to find a better solution.
I love this chart because it illustrates exactly why we need concentric circles in a democracy. This space between innovation and acceptance is where demagogues and gate keepers lie in wait to control information before it reaches the public. Like little trolls under the bridge. This is why we need knowledge bridges to replace the gatekeepers because most ideas can’t make it across this chasm on their own.
If you think of recent examples of elite working groups whose ideas were rejected by the wider society, like Brexit in the UK or the peace deal in Colombia, it was because of a failure of the working group to establish effective knowledge bridges between them and the public. The public did not see their viewpoints being heard and responded to and they did not see or understand or trust the decision making process, which gave demagogues on the outside of the process the ability to derail the acceptance of their recommendations. The people had information that was too difficult to audit themselves, and they had no faith in the people offering solutions. People in the UK said repeatedly they were sick of being lied to by the media and experts.
When people lose faith in those who are supposed to be their experts, like politicians, or those who are supposed to be their knowledge bridges like the media, they lose faith in any stigmergic goal these people present and they will block it, as I said earlier. The information from the opposition in both cases was certainly no better, nobody was offering a fully developed and audited plan for an alternative peace deal or a detailed plan to exit the EU, but even very poorly supported information and hyperbole is sufficient to overturn an idea that the public doesn’t trust. We can see this also in most elections, there are just demagogues and hyperbole on both sides, there is no process of reconciling any issues with the public or providing information people can rely on. In fact, the goal seems to be to deliberately confuse and immobilize the public and then just give them a binary vote in the hope they vote against the establishment which has lost so much trust. This is why both sides seem to only be interested in painting the other as the most corrupt establishment.
[On May 8 2017, former US Director of National intelligence James Clapper suggested the solution to the misinformation of the US 2016 election was to further fund USAID and spread more misinformation against US enemies. Those are exactly the actions that caused people to lose faith in information emanating from the US in the first place.]
You may have seen a lot of people blaming this current state of low information on social media and they are partially right but corporate media certainly doesn’t get a free pass either. Most of the tools we have to communicate simulate direct democracy and look for popular ideas, the most retweets and the most readers, but not only is popular not innovative or expert, the two are mutually exclusive. Popular ideas are riding the peak of the wave of socially acceptable opinion. They already appeal to the widest audience. They are not new ideas, by definition, and they aren’t at a level of elite expertise that is difficult for all but a few to understand also by definition. This is why we now elect politicians on the basis of their tweets and this is the secret for politicians like Donald Trump who speaks at a grade 3 level. The more easily understood and the less challenging your message, the wider your appeal will be so an age that amplifies the most popular information, as we do now, will be an age of demagogues.
It is counter intuitive to think popular ideas are what we need to give us the best information. If we need some specialized level of knowledge to explain something like Brexit or a peace deal or the issues in an election, or if we want those making the decisions to hear the voices that are seldom heard, that may expand their Overton windows and give us some fresh perspective, or represent a rare case that will cause their solution to break, amplifying the most popular ideas or people is the exact opposite of what we ought to be doing. And really this is what direct democracy, representative and liquid democracy do, so of course it is also what the tools for democracy have been doing.
We have tools that are very useful to find out what a population thinks and tools that are great for discussing things and coming to consensus, but we need to also go to where their opinions are formed. Opinions are based on information. We need to be able to find expertise and accurate and diverse information that we can trust before we form our opinions and long before we measure them.
Ideas need to be audited and promoted by those users qualified to understand them to allow diversity of ideas and prevent the process from being dominated by celebrities without the expertise required. But if we have an elite discussion group with only elite experts or ideas in it, we are at great risk of having an elite oligarchy based on control of information. This is what we have now. We don’t maintain the necessary balance between autonomy, diversity and society unless this quiet place to talk remains a fully associated part of the wider group. So to avoid a hierarchy and leave control with the entire user group, I use a structure I call concentric circles.
Concentric circles relate to sound amplification. In a concentric circle, people or ideas promoted to the center by their peer group receive greatest amplification and their findings will be audited, amplified and explained to the general public by outer circles. They are not hierarchical as they have no direct control over the actions of anyone. An epistemic community is a knowledge resource only, authority remains with the entire user group which provides a good incentive for the epistemic community to ensure transparency and knowledge bridges so their ideas are accepted. As in stigmergy, votes in a concentric group are frequently replaced by actions. If this little drop receives no amplification, it is just an idea that goes nowhere.
With knowledge bridges, you don’t have to have personal expertise on every aspect of society. All you have to do is have a transparent concentric circle that you can look at, you can see the activity, you can get feedback if necessary, and you can say yes, there are a lot of people auditing, there is a lot of discussion, I trust some of the people in these circles, I trust that they know what they are doing. Everyone can review the work of the experts both directly and through the review by their peers. Experts can also be created by the system itself as users develop knowledge and reputation and move towards the centre and you will find this happens increasingly if users lose trust, they will realize they need to start auditing this circle.
Communication should not be the full responsibility of the experts in the centre, which is where government initiatives like Brexit and the Colombia peace deal have failed. Ideas should be carried over expertise bridges by full transparency and user participation. The epistemic community in the centre should not need to protect themselves from demands or attacks from completely uninformed users or demagogues. The circles of expertise which promoted them to the centre should also verify and explain their findings to the outer circles. And, concerns and arguments from the user group should be carried back to the epistemic community if the user group finds the points valid. So the epistemic community can work without noise but still receive ongoing feedback from the users and acceptance is a process, not just a binary vote after the fact.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because this is exactly what happens in open source communities.
In open source software, the code for each project is available for all to see. Even if the end user cannot understand the code, they can go to discussion groups or listen to programmers who have read and audited the code, they can read the bug reports. Any urgent bugs will be broadcast to the general population and amplified by media as we have seen many times. The people with the greater knowledge of the system will provide knowledge bridges for people at a more novice level and increasingly, that’s how people are learning to code. Good ideas from forum discussions can be read, possibly implemented by the developers as well. Transparency goes both ways.
Open source software with forums open to all are a perfect working example of fully transparent and audited systems of elite knowledge. While the decisions are made by the developers, review and acceptance or rejection of the software is the right of the user group. If the developers refuse to listen to the user group and another development team is willing to work on the project, the original code can be forked and modified to meet the user requirements. Which means you can only be attacked by another fully developed, open and transparent epistemic community which also must be audited by knowledge bridges. You can’t be attacked just by a demagogue and rhetoric, you can only be opposed by another working solution so the user group has a choice between two or more working solutions instead of simply rejection or acceptance. Which means we need the final most important point for concentric circles – the information is free for anyone to use or modify.
Intellectual property in a stigmergic system is like an ant that finds food but doesn’t leave any pheromones to tell the other ants. Or worse, actually blocks the other ants and that idea is so ridiculous I can’t even think of a stigmergic example of it. Ownership of ideas is in complete opposition to stigmergy which is to say it is in complete opposition to rapid progress, finding the best solutions and democracy.
So what we have been looking for here are methods of collaboration that bring us a balance between autonomy, diversity and society. We want to allow the maximum amount of autonomy to those doing the work so we can include all of their ideas and abilities. We want to allow as many diverse solutions as people are inspired to try for each problem. And then we want to allow the entire user group to easily make an informed choice of which solution is best for them as is their right in a democracy. So our methods are stigmergy, which we use for mass action and concentric circles which we use to audit, teach and amplify information.
The best part of stigmergic work and transparent concentric circles for knowledge is our work doesn’t get wasted. When you come to an event like this with a specific project, it is easy to feel as though you are in a competition where you are only associated with one project and your success or failure is tied to that one project and the group around it. But even if you organize your own team in a completely different form, if you follow these principles you will still be contributing to progress as a node in a stigmergic idea. For this two weeks the idea is: Let’s develop better tools for democracy. If you follow these principles, if other people are free to contribute to your project and you to theirs, if you add what you learn to the epistemic community of ideas and act as a knowledge bridge to those learning and most of all if your code is open and free, you will still be part of the community around this idea contributing to the goal we are all working towards. You will be part of the ecosystem.
When a baby is born, they are assigned a gender, a generation, an ethnicity, a citizenship and a health rating. They are assigned a class by the neighbourhood, professions and income bracket of their parents. As children, they are sent to educational institutions where professionals examine and categorize them every day. Instead of providing sufficient teachers and adequate training and options to manage diversity in schools, many governments now provide extra funding only after schools have classified educational difficulties in the students. The underfunded schools are motivated in this way to classify as many students as possible with the preferred learning disabilities so they can be streamed into special programs and used as product by the pharmaceutical industry. Students who escape this are streamed into narrower and narrower paths towards their future assigned roles.
The sectarianism initiated at birth intensifies throughout adolescence until teenagers are expected to spend all of their time worried about what they will become. When they finally attain adulthood, they will be confident in their assertion of what they are: professional, unemployed, educated, ignorant, married, single, a success or a failure. These classifications are added to the ones they received at birth, and then still more. They will become liberal, conservative or apolitical, gay, straight, or asexual, criminal or law abiding, addicted or not. They may belong to churches or fraternities or professional groups. Simply losing a physical object can cause them to drop into the bottom class, and become part of the homeless. They are not simply the same people without homes, the loss of an object changes their class identity and who and what the world sees them as.
Pundits of media and academia will all scramble to classify them further, to be the first to coin a new category. They will become hippies or yuppies or NEETs, emos or hipsters or millenials. They will be set against each other as proletariat and bourgeosie then further excluded as lumpenproles and petit-bourgeousie. They will submit to divisions as binary as black and white, to subdivisions so detailed they require acronyms like WOC, to gender and sexual orientation coalitions that include half the alphabet and an asterisk. They will probably enter online thought bubbles of gaming or social media. They will begin to classify themselves and others by opinion, as SJWs and MRAs, as fascists and anti-fascists and as every hyphenated ideology imaginable. In the obsession over group affiliation, actions and ideas are completely lost. People are accepted or shunned by entire category, not individual actions and ideas.
Societal institutions relate to each person by their assigned category. Legal systems and media will call some people in countries they weren’t born into expats and others immigrants or illegals leading to vastly different treatment for the same situation. The same actions are crimes or not depending on social standing and whether or not the perpetrator is an agent of the state. Murder is unlawful killing. The law only objects when the lower classes kill, so killing is not murder if it is by police, militaries, judges and presidents. Taking property is only stealing for the lower classes who don’t write property laws and disobeying the rules is only a problem for those not making them. Credit cards, banking institutions and so many others pay the wealthy and charge the poor for the same services. People can be forbidden freedom of movement based on citizenship or refused the right to survival income based on education. These class based differences which result in everything from lifelong misery to death are far more easily accepted if they can be abstracted by categorization.
The historical creation of difference between religions from the same culture, coloured by the same ancient myths, who accept the same texts as authority, pray to the same god and preach the same morality, helped to divide international populations for exploitation by the trade economy. The idea that these are three or more different religions instead of three sects of the same religion is a stretch. When compared with religions from completely different regions, it is apparent that these three ought to be considered one. It is only through a history written from the perspective of practitioners of these/this religion(s) that the differences were inflated to justify separate labels. Language was eventually used to separate the religion(s), with Hebrew common for Jewish texts, Latin for Christian and Arabic for Islam but all texts were still available in all the regional languages and the name of god is the same and prayers are very similar in the same languages. The inflated differences under this religion were combined with academic depiction of all other religions on earth as cults or in some way not real religions. The definition of a religion (vs a cult) usually includes qualifiers that limit religions to only sects of this one religion. Common qualifiers for a religion are a belief in God, a formalized hierarchical structure and written religious texts. This has left most of the world under the moral directive of one religion, that of the Silk Road.
Left to right: Christian woman, Jewish women, Muslim woman
Even the surface differences pointed to today in different practices of the trade route religion are really not different. The fashion of the time and place where all of these religions were born dictated very similar dress and that regional dress became encoded in the religious texts as the proper form of dress. Islamic, Christian and Jewish faiths all dictated that women should cover their hair and women in the devout sects of all three major religions still cover their heads in a very similar manner. As well as the more traditional sects of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the most permissive Christian churches still required women to wear hats in the 1960s, Christians still veil at religiously significant events like funerals and weddings and both traditional nuns and Mary are always depicted in head coverings. Despite this, and the fact that many Muslim women, especially in the west, do not cover their heads and many Christians and Jews, especially in the Middle East, still do, popular sentiment has decided to associate head covering with Islam. An idea that most people’s grandmothers or any but the most narrow experience could tell them was certainly not unique to Islam has been used to persecute Muslim women. Predictably, head covering in the United States then became a cultural property of only Muslims, which would ignite a fury of Medium blogs if worn by anyone else.
The Indo-European trade route religion(s) followed prophets who looked at the same culture in roughly the same era and provided guidance for how to make that culture more humane. Instead of taking the spirit of those prophets and applying their same humanitarian impulses to our societies today, some people use these religious texts to demand a return to the same societies these prophets were trying to lead people out of. The message of all of the prophets was one of evolution, not regression or violent restriction of evolution. After two millennia or so, either the spirit must be followed ahead of the texts or this religion(s) is no longer useful. This religion(s) gained huge followings along the trade routes because of the hope it gave of something better than the life that was experienced there. Demands that all societies return to the same patriarchal trade cultures that these prophets provided guidance away from is in opposition to the religions these demands emanate from.
The patriarchal model itself was a symptom of the trade routes. International trade created a very dangerous time and place where strangers were more likely to be a slave raid than potential friends. A patriarchal structure provided an outer shell to protect the weaker members of society even while it also gave the patriarch ownership over those weaker members. A patriarch could sell a wife or child to pay off debt, but he was also responsible for the survival of the entire extended clan. Women and men had extremely defined roles. Women could not usually make leadership decisions but women were also not expected to risk danger by meeting with strangers and the men arranged all travel, alliances, war and other dangerous social activity. Women were frequently sold or stolen as slaves or in marriage, but so were men and boys and the boys were often castrated, a horrific and barbarous practice with a survival rate of possibly ten percent. To depict such a system as simply one in which men oppressed women is incorrect, as is any suggestion that it proves men are superior to women.
Patriarchy was a horrific structure, necessitated by the world created by the trade routes. Gender was invented as a set of social norms divided between the classes of men and women. The primary features of gender supported the roles assigned to men and women. Men were to be brave, powerful, and in control. Women were to be loving, giving and submissive. Women were constrained by a gender designed for lifegivers and caregivers and men were coerced into a gender designed for killers and protectors. Today, women are as able to be protectors as men, men are have as much right to be caregivers as women, and any justification of a patriarchal structure is obsolete. The trade route prophets were using the culture that existed in their time and place as reference. Patriarchy is a cultural phenomenon, not a moral or religious ideal. The part of patriarchy that remains morally relevant is the fact that society needs lifegivers, caregivers and protectors. In these days of less dangerous societies, birth control and weapons which do not rely on strength, the roles remain but are no longer gendered or exclusive. In times and places not on the major trade routes, men and women shared these roles. That is our human impulse in societies not being violently coerced.
The scientific obsession with human categorization attempted to justify a stratified society without religion. Categorization imposes an abstract construct based on perspective. It is not scientific fact. Archaeology and DNA continue to find almost no differences between nations. Both knowledge exchange and genetic mixing are shown more clearly with every archaeological find around the world. The ancient mixing of migrant Homo Sapiens with Neandertals and Denisovans is still used as an excuse for racism despite the fact that “the greatest genetic diversity is still found within sub-Saharan Africa” where this mixing would indicate the least.i The caucasian Tarim mummies in China, dating from as early as 1800 BCE, have caused discomfort both in China and outside. The Chinese state, like many other nations that have current land claims to establish, prefers a history of an isolated empire which developed entirely by itself to a history of near constant global trade and migration. A simple archaeological find is also made politically complex by the idea of citizenship. The Chinese Uyghers have taken to calling themselves the caucasian Chinese in a fight against the Chinese state’s policy of considering them recent immigrants. Evidence that Polynesians and others may have landed in the Americas long ago is also politically distasteful to some who feel threatened by a more complex view of history and are trying to establish national land claims. Rights which depend on defective categorization of humans are put in jeopardy by more accurate information. Those rights should never have been dependent on these categories in the first place.
While differences between sexes are being denied and attempts are made to eradicate them, differences between ethnicities are being exaggerated and attempts are made to manufacture them. With no scientific basis for race and no correlating national identities, there is not much to go on. People around the world look extremely similar. Ethnicity is not separated along lines of physical appearance and neither is it any longer separated by location or even ancestry which is too mixed to divide neatly. Neither is there any kind of a rational spectrum in appearance. Melanesian blondes have blonde hair with very dark skin and black Irish have black hair with very pale skin and the curliest hair is found at both ends of the skin tone spectrum. Claiming different cultures for people frequently raised in the same neighbourhoods or even families is beyond ridiculous. Claiming a similar heritage based on appearance is factually incorrect. While race was created for class segregation, that is no longer a reliable grouping either. Religious groupings created systems of beliefs which turned into laws which separated each other but race has not even that to go on. Groupings by so-called race are solely political.
Race was created primarily as a way to easily assign ingroup or outgroup status by class within societies. In the earliest stratified societies, it was customary to wear distinguishing clothing, jewelery or tattoos to easily identify class. With the spread of the international slave trade, ethnic appearance was used instead. The Dutch East India company and many others transported slaves back and forth from India, Southeast Asia and Africa, resulting in slave populations which had no community ties to defend them and were a highly visible class. Not only were the traders and purchasers able to dehumanize these slaves as an ethnic outgroup, the local populations saw them as an outgroup as well. The imposition of class barriers was far easier when a class could not hide from their own physical appearance, whether that was sexual or ethnic appearance.
The imposition of ingroups and outgroups by class is a powerful construct with multi-generational effects. In most of Africa, the word racism is usually replaced by tribalism but it frequently relates to class as well. Former slave and slave owner classes are as divided in Africa as they are in the rest of the world, whether the cause is depicted as racism or tribalism. Some people descended from the Incan empire still treat those descended from former slave tribes as an inferior outgroup and they are also still relatively economically disadvantaged. The Dominican Republic deports its low income workers by deporting Dominicans of Haitian descent. Once race and gender have been established, their use becomes a shorthand meme to remind people of who their outgroups are, even when no one remembers the reason. Race and gender have become a hereditary slave collar.
Despite the endless classifying of people, ostensibly and paradoxically in order to combat sectarianism, bigotry by class is not only tolerated, it is inherent in every institution. Every institution from education to the economy would collapse without classism. It is the height of hypocrisy for legal systems to claim to have laws against bigotry and hate crimes when the entire legal system is institutionalized bigotry and hate by class. Legal systems which deny the poor the basic essentials of life and condemn people of all ages to misery based on class are built on hate. Any laws which pretend to protect people based on gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity are a distraction from this foundational sectarianism.
Gender and race have a correlation with class, they are not a cause of class. Removing gender and race will have no impact on class divisions. Promoting gender and race will strengthen both sectarian and class divisions.
If women as lifegivers and social caregivers are under threat and indigenous people as ecosystem caregivers are also under threat, the most persecuted people on earth are indigenous women. In Canada, 1200 to 4232 aboriginal women have gone missing or been murdered since 1980ii. Canada’s former Prime Minister told the media “it isn’t really high on our radar.” Particularly in formerly matriarchal nations, the degradation of indigenous women and their social invisibility is necessary to ensure they do not regain or remember their former power. In most nations, from Central America’s Caravan of Missing Migrants to Argentina’s Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, to Nigeria’s Bring Back Our Girls, it is the mothers and grandmothers who have formed the resistance movements against the ongoing genocides.
Violence against women has little to do with gender relationships or sex and everything to do with class. When someone destroys another human’s intestines with a metal rod and throws them from a moving bus with their intestines falling out, as in the The 2012 Delhi gang rape case, it is not because the male to female ratio in India is out of balance or because Bollywood encourages men to think of sex. This is murder, brutality and sadism, and it is the kind of violence applied to outgroups. The same violence has been seen around the world towards ethnic groups who have had roles forced upon them that the trade economy teaches contempt for.
The reason women were and are persecuted is their ability to give birth and their assigned role as the essential but unpaid labour in society ruled by trade economy. The reason indigenous people were and are persecuted is their occupation of land and resistance to exploitation of that land. Solutions that simply offer compensation to persecuted groups within the paradigm of their persecution do nothing to shift the balance of power away from the merchant class and back to society. Solutions based on ethnicity and gender do nothing to protect the roles which were the actual reason for persecution.
In the fight to regain their power, women and indigenous nations have lost themselves. The personal stories and professional pride of women have been erased, their own bodies have been used to enslave them and their economic and social relationships are removed from the structure we live in. The only current path to autonomy for women is to join the trade economy and the primary path to the trade economy is through mind and body altering pharmaceuticals, politicized access to health services and rejection of lifegiving and caregiving roles. Indigenous nations have been made to prove their history and genetic purity in international courts in order to qualify for indigenous legal rights such as free, prior, informed consent to exploitation of their land. The path to autonomy for indigenous nations is through racism, exaggerated and purified history and permission to exist accorded by ancient history and forbidden evolution.
Allowing women and indigenous people media attention only when they accept corporate ideology ensures their messages in other roles are not heard. Lifegiving and caregiving are social roles, not genders or races. Diverting attention to how many female or ethnically indigenous people are represented in corporate roles distracts from all the lifegivers and caregivers who are not being heard and replaces the urgent conversations we are not having about the caregiving roles being vacated by women and indigenous people. Demanding roles for women and formerly indigenous people in the ponzi schemes of power supports and upholds those ponzi schemes and drains resistance movements.
Gender and race are social constructs and exist on a spectrum. Until we can be partly pregnant, the roles we fulfill do not. The founder of Y-combinator, the source of the most funding and influential advice for tech startups, did not tell startup founders to not hire people wearing dresses and makeup. He told them they would be crazy to hire anyone capable of giving birth.iii He did not specify a point on the spectrum of relative maleness called male to female or man to woman, he specified lifegivers, those with uteruses who may one day use them, those with bodies potentially capable of growing a second autonomous human body inside of them, giving birth to it and then nursing it and those who society expects may do that. All the neo-pronouns and non-binary genders in the world are not going to change this bigotry against role.
Alongside the antipathy to real diversity, fake or surface diversity has become a lucrative corporate product. Corporations which refuse to respect the earth or allow the safe and supportive communities required for caregiving, congratulate themselves for hiring women and people whose ancestors are from diverse regions. Indigenous people who run their own mining corporations and are hailed as a great success in gaining indigenous rights are equivalent to women who work for corporations as a strike for feminism. Replacing a culture that respected the land with a culture reduced to blankets, beads and suspect DNA is like replacing lifegiving and caregiving with the birth control pill and calling it a success for maternal rights. If autonomy is solely used to give more people the ability to act exactly like the merchant class, it does not support the diversity of roles we need. A destructive mine is a destructive mine no matter who profits from it and there is no community support for lifegiving and caregiving whether some women are able to opt out of it or not. Instead of begging legal and economic permission to act as ecosystem and community caregivers based on DNA, the roles of ecosystem and community caregivers and protectors must be recognized and empowered. Instead of standing outside begging for admittance to power, lifegivers, caregivers and protectors need to reclaim their own power, on their own terms. Instead of fighting for all to join an economy rewarding those who serve the powerful, we need to design one rewarding those who serve society and our ecosystems.
The solution to the class war is not to be found in some binary division between proletariat and bourgeoisie and a revolution which flips the two. The proletariat and the bourgeoisie were never as clear cut as depicted and they long ago transformed into new social roles. Instead of a subordinate or dominant peasantry, we need interlocking nations of ecosystem and community caregivers and protectors. Instead of a class of powerful scientists, we need open and transparent epistemic communities. Instead of gatekeeping and hoarding of knowledge by academia, we need an organic ecosystem of auditers, knowledge bridges and amplifiers of information from epistemic communities. Instead of roles assigned and protected by ethnicity or gender, we need free choice to seek the work most fulfilling to each of us. Instead of a hierarchical valuation of those roles, we need equivalence.
Identity politics requires an acceptance of a very simplistic history where group affiliation is pure and all of history has good guys on one side and bad guys on the other. Identitarians teach that if humanity can be divided and we compensate the good guys, our conflicts will be over because we will have equality. We don’t need equality. We need diversity, supported by equivalence. Our diversity is necessary, not in a variety of shades and genders performing the same roles but in a great diversity of roles, each open to all regardless of skin tone or gender. We also need equivalence for diversity of ability, where the great spectrum of aptitude encompassed by humanity results in a great diversity of roles, not a stratified system of valuation.
The violence against both women and indigenous people is caused by society’s contempt for the roles they are cast in or perceived to represent. The answer to this violence is not to demand equality for all performing the same destructive roles for the trade economy. The answer is to demand respect and widespread acceptance of the lifegiving and caregiving roles so desperately needed and encourage these roles for all. The violence directed against people for the social constructs of gender and race are not even in the same world as the violence directed at them as caregivers and protectors, no matter how much identity politics wants to conflate the two. Genocides have been committed the world over to clear populations off of land for industry or competing groups. The violence against people based on role will stop when the roles of lifegiving and caregiving are recognized and accorded the approval of the whole society. Violence against people based on the social constructs of race and gender will only be resolved by abolishing race and gender, which will never happen while people are still profiting from these divisions.
Diversity is not attained solely by allowing broader spectrums of social constructs such as gender or race in the same corporate roles. Diversity must also allow equivalent social acceptance for the variety of roles required in a healthy society.
“In 1968 people like Habermas, Marcuse, and Roszak invited us to see the role of scientific rationality in the maintenance of the existing social order and to examine critically whether that was the role which we wished expertise to play…. On the whole, we failed. … What was just about escapable then seems inescapable now.” – Robert Young, 1984i
The discouragement of those who have been in the trenches of the radical science movement for over half a century is understandable. Accepting defeat is not an option, however. Society without science, and without an effective way to integrate epistemic communities, will always be a society dissociated and easily controlled. Society with integrated scientific and epistemic communities may even yet save itself.
For years, science fiction writers and scientists have been enthralled with the idea of a technological singularity. They have looked forward to a day when technology will be beyond the scope of human understanding and artificial intelligence will be programming itself. Instead, we have reached a societal singularity where no one can understand every aspect of society which affects them We need to collaborate with others to create or develop products and even just to understand the news. We have to put our faith in other people and believe in what they tell us or trust in their skill to create their components. We need to somehow create nuanced and detailed information we can trust and coordinate goals with people we will never speak to.. Our societies are all connected now at some level with all of the other communities in the world, including even uncontacted tribes. This singularity is both unacknowledged and a core part of our societal functioning (and malfunctioning). Not only knowledge based industries but every level of governance depends on our management of communication and trust. The lack of integration between knowledge and the public is crippling our progress.
Representative governance and both the Great Man and the identitarian views of history present all human interaction as personality based. If there are community conflicts, our institutions assume the problem is one of personality management which can be solved by law enforcement. If social issues aren’t addressed, representative democracy assumes a demographic is under represented. Collaboration in a personality based system can only be by authority or consensus. Most workers do not enjoy authoritarian systems as they lose autonomy, mastery and creative control over their own work and rule is by coercion, not choice. Consensus is ideal for small, local, like-minded affinity groups, but it only works in groups of under twenty-five people, preferably two to eight. Consensus is not useful for large scale collaboration or collaboration that is separated by communication barriers or over time.
Neither knowledge based industries nor governance ought to be personality based and neither can operate effectively in that way. The goal of all knowledge industries, including governance, is to stimulate the public to action. The only effective and voluntary large scale method of action based collaboration is stigmergy1 and stigmergic action follows ideas, not personalities. Since knowledge industries want to trigger stigmergic actions, they ought to be focused on ideas.
Currently, knowledge communities act like closed, internationally linked, affinity groups at a level of expertise not accessible to the general public. Affinity groups are personality based and allow expertise to be held by gatekeepers controlling information flow between groups. While local, self-governing, affinity groups should have the ultimate authority of acceptance or rejection of ideas, they all need access to the expertise of international epistemic communities in order to make the choices which are right for them. A structure which allows gatekeepers to control information flow will create both demagogues and an easily manipulated public. Epistemic communities that develop and audit ideas should use transparent and permeable concentric circles to integrate ideas from the epistemic communities directly with the public.
In a governance context this means we won’t be electing personalities, we will be electing ideas. We won’t have representatives for groups of people, we will have concentric circles around ideas.
Academic and scientific journals were created so that everyone would publish and build off of each others findings, guiding stigmergic action. In reality, most research is not open source, it is frequently corporate IP property and it does not allow permissive copyright or even access. Outside contributions and auditing is not rewarded or even allowed. Science and academia are very far from acting as concentric circles integrating ideas with wider society. Their closed communities allow their work to be easily controlled by politicians and industry and very little stigmergic action results from it. Without stigmergy, their progress is not nearly what it could be. Science and academia require knowledge bridges, transparency and free information if they are going to truly act as epistemic communities for us all and stimulate mass action.
Stigmergy is a method of collaboration for mass movements, not organizations. The civil rights movement in the United States was a stigmergic movement which retained its clarity through successive generations because it set specific goals in each cycle, whether that was to end slavery, end segregation, or end police violence. When feminism meant fighting for the vote and legal personhood it also had a clear goal and was also a stigmergic mass movement, but second wave feminism allowed its goals to become very loose. Because there wasn’t a clear goal, second wave feminism was used to advertise corporate product and promote prominent personalities, primarily from the United States, who felt they could speak for every woman in the world on every topic. When feminism stopped following ideas, it stopped being a stigmergic movement and became a competitive, personality driven organization which then became completely divided, as is typical. Personality based organizations do not scale.
Stigmergy is made up of collaborative actions, not identitarian organizations or people. All identity politics results in personality based organizations which is why so many resistance movements, especially in the United States, collapse due to infighting. If mass movements rallied to stop rape, or street executions by police, or contamination of water, they would be very widely supported and unstoppable. Personality based organizations claiming victimhood as the exclusive product of one identity group have succeeded in stopping mass movements around all of these these stigmergic goals.
Stigmergy can scale to an entire population if support for an idea is unanimous and identity politics is not used to drive people away. Because stigmergy follows ideas, ideas are as important in stigmergy as personality management is in organizations. The single biggest factor for whether or not someone will participate in a stigmergic action is whether they are sure of the idea behind it. Whether it affects them, or if its simple to grasp or easy or even safe to do matters very little compared to their belief in the goal. This means the easiest way for someone to prevent action is to sow doubt in the goal. Finding the information we need for conviction in our goals in the collaborative structures we use today is not easy.
Most of the tools we have to help mass communication simulate direct democracy and look for popular ideas, the most shares and the most readers. Not only is popular not innovative or expert, the two are mutually exclusive. Popular ideas are riding the peak of the wave of socially acceptable opinion. They already appeal to the widest audience. They are not new ideas, by definition, and they aren’t at a level of elite expertise that is difficult for all but a few to understand also by definition. This is why we now elect politicians on the basis of their tweets and this is the secret for politicians like Donald Trump who speaks at a grade 3 level.ii The more easily understood and the less challenging the message, the wider its appeal will be. An age that amplifies the most popular information, as we do now, will be an age of demagogues.
It is counter intuitive to think popular ideas are what we need to give us the best information. We need both expert and diverse knowledge. If we want those making the decisions to hear the voices that are seldom heard, that may expand their Overton windows and give us some fresh perspective, or represent a rare case that will cause their solution to break, amplifying the most popular ideas or people is again the exact opposite of what we ought to be doing. This is what direct, representative and liquid democracy do however, so of course it is also what the tools for democracy have been doing. We have tools for voting, tools that are very useful to find out what a population thinks and tools that are great for discussing things in affinity groups and coming to consensus, but we need to also go to where opinions are formed. Opinions are based on information. We need to be able to find expertise and accurate and diverse information that we can trust before we form our opinions and long before we measure them.
Ideas need to be audited and promoted by people qualified to understand them both to allow diversity of ideas and to prevent the process from being dominated by celebrities without the expertise required. If we have an elite discussion group with only elite experts or ideas in it, we are at great risk of having an elite oligarchy based on control of information, like we have now. Concentric circles relate to sound amplification. In a concentric circle, people or ideas promoted to the center by their peer group receive greatest amplification and findings will be audited, amplified and explained to the general public by outer circles. Concentric circles are not hierarchical as they have no direct control over the actions of anyone. An epistemic community is a knowledge resource only. Authority remains with the entire user group which provides a good incentive for the epistemic community to ensure transparency and knowledge bridges so their ideas are accepted. As in stigmergy, votes in a concentric group are frequently replaced by actions. If an idea receives no amplification, it is just an idea that goes nowhere.
“I wonder if the world is full of middle-aged people still waiting for their peers to take in the full range, depth, subtlety, and profundity of their work.” – Robert Youngiii
With knowledge bridges, everyone does not need personal expertise on every aspect of society. As long as there is a transparent concentric circle, everyone can see the activity and get feedback if necessary. If there are a lot of people auditing and a lot of discussion and if the observers trust some of the people in these circles, they can trust the process and the ideas. Everyone can review the work of the experts both directly and through the review by their peers. Experts can also be created by the system itself as users develop knowledge and reputation and move towards the centre. This happens increasingly if users lose trust and they realize they need to start auditing a circle.
The vast majority of scientific and academic work is ignored as the public has no access or understanding and the scientific community has no time to examine everything. With a wider circle of auditors, outside the community of competitive peers, this work would not all be lost. Instead of doctors ignoring their patients for the latest paper from their colleagues or funding from the powerful, knowledge bridges would encourage community driven knowledge and research. Psychologists should not have the sole authority to decide what is normative. Anti-social or social acts should be decided by the society itself. Pharmaceutical industries and medical professionals cannot be allowed to ignore the lived experience of groups such as the Hearing Voices Network and Aphrodite Women’s Health forum. Science, even where it uses isolation, must also be tested as a part of the whole, and even where it relies on peer review, must be fully open to review and contribution by the wider society.
Science will tell us that the population of an isolated community has shrunk 3.5 centimetres in the last century. If they asked the people in the village, they may hear that one man was 5’4” and had 27 children and almost the entire town are now his direct descendants, but in today’s structure they rarely ask. Science will tell us that a woman died of a heart attack. Her village could tell us that she died of a broken heart because her son died. Science tells us how, but without the village, we will never understand why. Science today is not asking the village. They are too busy telling everyone that people can’t die of a broken heart and sneering at superstitious villagers. As Paul Richards outlines in Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, ebola was not being spread by eating wild meat as the international experts claimed. Villagers noticed it was the people who attended funerals who contracted the disease and adjusted their behaviours more effectively on their own. If the international epistemic community studying ebola had been communicating with the local affinity groups dealing with ebola, they all would have been a lot more effective. Instead of providing a one way flow of near useless information, researchers could have been acting as an integrated epistemic community and a valuable resource.
No one is or should be more afraid of the mob, of mob norms and mob decisions, than those outcast on the fringes. For those accepted into the scientific community, it is frequently the first social gathering where they can share their knowledge and interests and the only place they can speak freely with others at their level of knowledge on their topic of interest. If they guard the borders of their nation it is not solely from xenophobia. Without isolation from the public, scientists and other specialists have a very valid fear that they would no longer be permitted to work. The marauding hordes which some fear would overrun science and persecute a scientific minority do pose a very existential threat. With no society which understands their work, scientists would be marginalized, their social approval stolen by demagogues and their work misunderstood or lost. In a larger community, all would demand equal and democratic amplification on topics far beyond their understanding. The wider public will always be resentful of any research support they see as self indulgent and this resentment will be used politically. Particularly where there is no public access or obvious public merit, the public will never willingly fund science or elite knowledge. When information is controlled by demagogues, what is important loses to what is popular.
When left out in isolation, user groups can be as guilty of group narcissism as the scientists they criticize. As psychoanalysts looked to parenting as the cause of scizophrenia and other illnesses as part of their vilification of mothers, feminists seized anorexia nervosa and anorexia bulimia as evidence of the body shaming culture women and girls lived in. The physical areas of investigation such as hypoglycaemia and associated yeast infections and digestive issues were spurned as reams of paper and mainstream media was filled on this far more lucrative and politically satisfying line of inquiry.iv Any scientific finding that endorses popular bias will receive far more media attention, approbation and funding than that which discredits popular bias. Scientific or academic findings which strengthen identitarian groups will be spread and encouraged by those identitarian groups. Even science likes being appreciated and will respond to public acclaim. Wider community influences on science must guard against the biases of scientists, not promote their own. Science and all specialized study requires autonomy from popularity. Complete transparency is required so media does not selectively report and science does not selectively research in response to political pressure.
Any specialist epistemic community cannot produce any work of value if they are expected to be in constant communication with people at a level of understanding far below their own. Neither can they produce work if they are fending off political attacks by demagogues. Communication should not be the full responsibility of experts. The current demand for people in knowledge industries to go on speaking tours, delivering sound bites like performing monkeys, is a waste of their expertise and forced crowd pleasing for survival. Epistemic communities should be allowed to work and to communicate only when they choose, to whom they choose.
While every epistemic community requires a quiet place to discuss work with those at a similar level of understanding, and no expert should be required to submit themselves to the “lol. Fake news.” level of Internet discussion, their work should be both completely transparent and accessible for others to discuss and build on. Their ideas should be carried over expertise bridges by full transparency and user participation. The epistemic community in the centre should not need to protect themselves from demands or attacks from completely uninformed users or demagogues. The circles of expertise which promoted them to the centre should also verify and explain their findings to the outer circles. In addition, the epistemic communities themselves must be completely permeable to anyone with valuable input. It is only by allowing oppositional thought and transparent auditing that expert communities can protect their ideas from being blocked by uninformed demagogues.
Popular instances of political demagogues overthrowing expert recommendations rely on simple sabotage. The opponents to the Colombia peace deal and Brexit had no better alternatives devised, any more than most politicians seeking election have reasonable platforms. Platforms are less and less a focus in elections in any case, as media and public attention is taken over by discrediting attacks instead of alternative solutions. Science cannot be allowed to be discredited by ignorant demagogues. Like free software, existing science should only be opposed by alternative theory which can meet the same standards of scientific rigour. Science cannot prove that vaccinations are safe, so vaccine safety should only be opposed by those who can prove they are not. It is only possible for science to be opposed by worthy rebuttals if it is within the power of everyone to make worthy rebuttals, if their work is also reviewed and they have the access required to audit and investigate.
In open source software, the code for each project is available for all to see. Even if the end user cannot understand the code, they can go to discussion groups or listen to programmers who have read and audited the code, and they can read the bug reports. Any urgent bugs will be broadcast to the general population and amplified by media as we have seen many times. The people with the greater knowledge of the system will provide knowledge bridges for people at a more novice level and increasingly, that is how people are learning to code. Good ideas from forum discussions can be read and possibly implemented by the developers as well. Transparency goes both ways.
Open source software projects with forums open to all are a perfect working example of fully transparent and audited systems of elite knowledge. While the decisions are made by the developers, input, review and acceptance or rejection of the software is the right of the user group. If the developers refuse to listen to the user group and another development team is willing to work on the project, the original code can be forked and modified to meet the user requirements. This means existing ideas can only be opposed by another fully developed, open and transparent epistemic community which also must be audited by knowledge bridges. They can’t be attacked just by demagogues and rhetoric. They can only be opposed by another working solution, so the user group has a choice between two or more working solutions instead of simply rejection or acceptance. This is only possible if the information is free for anyone to use or modify. Ownership of ideas is in complete opposition to both stigmergy and concentric circles, so it is in complete opposition to rapid progress, finding the best solutions and self governance.
The open software movement has driven most technology based fields into a flat and accessible relationship with the public and social media has done the same for journalism. As people become more accustomed to real and participatory news and culture, they will demand the same of science and academia. As science and academia develop their own direct relationships with their user communities, they will be in a position to shun those in industry or politics who refuse to support them or attempt to manipulate them. Politicians and industrialists are not necessary in a fourth age societal structure. Knowledge industries are and it is essential that local affinity groups learn how to communicate and support them directly.
We can never have idea and action based governance without the reliable information provided by fully open, transparent, epistemic communities and knowledge bridges. The ability to create a body of knowledge for review must not be restricted to one class. Access to and ownership of our knowledge must be a human right.
1 Stigmergy is explained in greater detail in both Binding Chaos and Releasing Chaos.
People think that our sole object is to amass gold. No one believes what we say. Like insolvent tradesmen we are without credit. – Pope Pius II, 1460i
The very justified resentment against science as a classist system of control and manipulation is being used as propaganda by the same corporations and politicians who used science as a tool of oppression. With the necessary public examination of science and academia has come an anti-elitist backlash where people are encouraged to trust no one: not science, governments, media, politicians or any authority. While misleading information will encourage people to act against their own interests, no information will immobilize them or encourage them to follow demagogues. This rejection of expertise has been used repeatedly in recent democratic votes to encourage the rise of uninformed or dishonest demagogues globally. The rise in misinformation and demagogues has in turn encouraged calls for even tighter control over information and official channels.
Now science itself, like journalism, is struggling to be heard over the demagogues and struggling even more for the trust of the classes below them. The trust and faith of the jaded and confused public is the most fought over resource today, with billions or trillions spent annually to procure it. Scientists and journalists understand even more than most that the very existence of humanity is in the balance. The corporate demagogues are (correctly) depicting intellectualism as bourgeoisii and (incorrectly) telling the public that ignoring experts is the same as overthrowing the elite and refusing to be manipulated. This blocks even the prior filtered access to knowledge the public used to receive and leaves people at the mercy of personality based governance and demagogues. Even ideas are conflated with ideology and people are discouraged from thinking about ideas because of previous massacres in the name of ideologies.
“Ironically, while this work should serve to improve the quality of scientific medicine, it is being used by some cranks to attack the scientific basis of medicine.” – Dr. Steven Novella, Are Most Medical Studies Wrong?
When a force which should be productive is under attack by a force which is certainly destructive, it is a natural feeling to delay criticism which may be used by the forces of destruction and to insist that now is not the time to suggest improvement. In the case of science and academia, immediate critique is not only necessary, it is crucial and urgent, but critique alone is not enough. Every time scientists and academics have taken a stand against power, they are threatened, expelled, imprisoned or executed. It is almost impossible for scientists and academics to reach the public directly without media and politically vulnerable appointments. Science can be undermined by demagogues because demagogues control communication between science and the public. We have to establish direct communication between epistemic communities and the wider public in order to remove power from demagogues. We have to build a protective network for knowledge preservation, auditing and dissemination. A time when knowledge is already under assault is the best time to establish this network.
In this era of no traditions, science in particular and information in general control our actions. Our true governance is through information. We will destroy humanity or save it based on information. Governance by the people requires knowledge as a societal right and a global commons. It should be the duty of all members of a self governing society to audit and share knowledge and promote and support its development. The ponzi schemes of academia and science shun anyone not in the citation circle and block access entirely to ideas and critique from outside of their class. Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook and Google all serve as propaganda control for states and corporations. Our collective knowledge should not be directed by corporations or exclusively available to a tightly guarded class, either for access or for contribution. We live under a supranational empire. We do not need secrecy over borders to protect knowledge from our enemies. The classes on top are the enemies of those below and they are maintaining their positions by the secrecy and idea ownership we allow them.
The solutions being recommended to the lethal ignorance of the public are headed in the wrong direction, towards more corporate control and a more accredited expert class. Journalists are wanting the internet reconstructed to give themselves credit and funding for each piece of information posted while they still grant neither to their subjects or sources. Scientists are encouraging even more secrecy and delayed publishing and less communication with media, much less the public.
The scientific class encourages those admitted into it to listen to their peers ahead of their patients and listen to local and unsanctioned knowledge only to steal credit. Science encourages binary division and branding of people and nature as mad / sane, dangerous / harmless or normal / abnormal according to the needs of industry and the powerful and to the detriment of the public. Science, academia and the media together encourage a cult-like devotion to pronouncements of one truth at a time instead of reflecting the nuance and uncertainty inherent in most research. Science views everything through a lens of corporate interest. Elite knowledge is still a product of wealth, leisure and access.
While the world has now amassed a vast quantity of knowledge and progression of that knowledge has grown exponentially since science and academia began, there is no reason to believe the creation of a scientific class brought the growth instead of the slope of progression we were already on. If instead of a closed class of scientists we had created open, permeable, epistemic communities, it is hard to not believe we would have made far less mistakes and far more progress in directions more beneficial to all of humanity. If the epistemic communities were open to the people, our information would not be so easy for demagogues and corporate interest to intercept and manipulate. Canada teaches mining to children as a ‘sustainable resource’ and bans scientific research as ‘anti-oil’ opinions. This and other Lysenkoism and educational propaganda is only possible if we do not all have direct access to all expert information through transparency and knowledge bridges.
Oral history taught us that people can accumulate knowledge in the collective mesh network of their brains and retain it with detailed accuracy for thousands of years. Guilds attempted to hoard that knowledge away from other stratas for their own enrichment and power. The new intelligentsia has often tried to be open and evolve but failed miserably because of a hierarchical classist structure that blocks input or access from the lower classes and puts knowledge in service to a tyrannical corporate empire. From the first age we can learn that if people have information they own, they will happily spread it, preserve it and use it in their daily lives. The second age guilds taught us that knowledge is power and if it is not shared, it is a recipe for tyranny. The third age has taught us that the public has no trust in information outside of their own class strata and they are justified in that lack of trust.
Whenever knowledge has helped secure an economic advantage it has been a source of conflict. Even old family recipes or other skill that might improve marriage possibilities have been guarded as tightly as guild secrets. Methods of preserving food, fishing spots and the ability to sew and maintain mukluks have in other times and places been as valuable to their possessors as silk, ermine or tulips. These secrets are no longer necessary for the survival of any person, just corporations.
Artists and all creative or knowledge based professions have fought to criminalize their audiences since copyright was invented. All recording technology since the player piano has had to fight artists who insisted their professions would be ruined by it. Rap deejays were the first to force mainstream acceptance of using other artists’ music in a mashup, opening up a huge pool of creativity that is still fighting for legal acceptance. As soon as people in both the free software movement and social media, started freely sharing their knowledge, industry found itself too dependent on the open source commons material to maintain their exclusive control. In all cases, the removal of exclusivity and knowledge gates brought an explosion of work and far greater diversity and expertise. Instead of responding to the obvious societal good in removing copyrights and patents, as the reasonable time for either has shortened, the time of ownership has been lengthened under international law.[cite]
There have been many suggestions for science to follow the lead of open source communities.iii In 2009, The Tropical Disease Initiative and several others attempted to encourage unpatented, open source drug discovery. Some initiatives such as Sci-Hub, an open access library of scientific papers established by neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan, have had better success by just ignoring the intellectual copyright laws and allowing the public access.1 Lately, the Open Science movement has been gaining traction, especially in the European Union with projects such as Facilitate Open Science Training for European Research (FOSTER) and various other initiatives and calls to action. The problem with all of these movements is they only involve publishing scientific data. Knowledge is not accessible unless the public can understand it. Epistemic communities require knowledge bridges to communicate with the public.
Science and journalism must evolve into systems for producing open, transparent, verified knowledge, free of powerful influence. Academia and journalism must become fully open, transparent methods of transmitting verified knowledge.
Our industrialized society has given us a backwards world where ideas are owned and personal data is not. While societal knowledge is held away from the public by gatekeeping laws and institutions, the personal details of the public is a product being examined and manipulated for politicians and the trade economy. The current goals of knowledge based capitalism continue the progression of supranational empire. The billionaires of silicon valley, like the financial and commodity industries, exist to create a new corporate ruling class overseeing a new age of corporate empire. What they produce is in service of empire, not greater society. The financial and commodity industries were set up to rob resources and enslave the rightful owners. The technology industries have created a global governance system designed around control and manipulation of information.
Academia is the primary institution where people are sorted and taught to sort each other, where the class systems are created and perpetuated. Those that decry the anti-intellectual tendencies of those on the bottom refuse to acknowledge the class system behind the hostility. It isn’t knowledge these people disdain, it is the class of people who refuse to allow them input or entry into the halls of debate. Knowledge and certification are hoarded behind a series of obstacles, only accessible after years of hazing to determine whether the recipients are suitable for entry into a homogenized class. Academia, like science, is a knowledge dictatorship. The wider public are barred from seeing the source of knowledge and expected to accept the filtered and packaged versions as truth. They are expected to acknowledge the superiority of the keepers of knowledge, when that superiority was granted by an external authority with no mandate from the people to create a superior class. This is not the same as an epistemic community that the people promoted themselves.
Academia is not a member of the communities it dictates to by virtue of the class floor built between them. Academia is used to bar people from the organizations which profess to speak for them. Human Rights Watch and many other organizations protecting the rights of those on the bottom demand a PhD for applicants seeking employment with them, barring entry to most of the people they are speaking for. Academic standing is used not just to bar people from economic classes and knowledge. Most borders are also open or closed depending on academic credentials and the laws dictating that were created by political and legal academics. Academia provides the majority of the visas to the supranational classes and so acts as the bureaucracy for a global eugenics program. While massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been an amazing development in bringing knowledge to the wider public and creating concentric circles of expertise and knowledge bridges around epistemic communities, the accreditation is still withheld by institutions and accessible only to those with money and time.
Not only does academia categorize students, it also spends far more time on assigning ideas and actions to categories or Great Men than it does in initiating or evaluating either. Students are rarely given ideas to audit and test and translate to action. They are instead given ideas to attribute by Great Man and categorize by ideology. They debate with sources and quotes instead of opposing ideas and actions, encouraging a public which follows personalities and ideologies instead of testing ideas and creating action. They are taught to worship solitary geniuses instead of being taught mass collaborative processes and how to use them. Academia is conducted like religious study, focused on what the great men said and meant instead of whether or not they were correct. The printing press created a rigor mortis for debate which the Internet should have cured, but academia slogs on in its old path with the same methods.
We no longer live in a world dominated by resource capitalism or industry. We live in a world dominated by information capitalism and information control. Industry had a direct source of conflict between workers and owners. Information simply has manipulation at the top and those at the bottom are largely unwitting and passive consumers. The intelligentsia is depicted as a meritocracy, a victimless elite as opposed to the industrialists victimizing factory workers.
Science hoards knowledge and uses it against the people and for the profit of corporations. Academia acts as gatekeepers to allow filtered streams of knowledge to a selected few. Journalism acts as a marketing agent for information which benefits the powerful. Academia sorts the people for future valuation by the trade economy and the law punishes those they deem without value. None of these institutions are by and for the people as they are all imposed by an outside class. None have a right to the confidence of the people and they receive none.
A people with no confidence in either their epistemic communities from the scientific class or their knowledge bridges from the academic and journalist classes is a people with no belief in ideas. With no ideas to follow in confidence, people will become cults following personalities which will become demagogues.
Societies do not transcend classes. If all knowledge is removed to a higher class, the lower classes will neither trust nor follow it. Without reliable knowledge, action will follow class demagogues.
1 Go to sci-hub.cc if you have difficulty finding any scientific papers cited in the endnotes of this book. Also consider supporting Elbakyan and the site in any way you can, she does not receive nearly the support or recognition deserved for her brave and extremely important work.
“When capital enlists science in her service, the refactory hand of labour will always be taught docility.” – Andrew Ure, 1835i
The problems with the scientific community were hardly news to scientists. Joseph Needham was concerned in 1935 about the impact of “scientific opium”, “a blindness to the suffering of others” and “a ruthlessness derived from the very statistical character of the scientific method itself” which “may too easily be applied to human misfits and deviationists in the socialist world order”. He addressed the scientific zeal to overcome all the evils of existence with the warning, “the problem of evil is not capable of so simple a resolution.”ii
After the atomic bomb was used in World War II, the world’s scientists enjoyed a boom in the United States in service to its ever-expanding military. The military expanded science and science expanded military in an all encompassing death dance that dwarfed all other funding and absorbed vast quantities of scientific thought and global potential. At this point scientists were not responding solely to their own very ample bigotries. They were being trained with military propaganda and their findings were spun by military propagandists. US President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous 1961 speech warning of the military industrial complex reminded us, “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present.”iii Any of science’s already tenuous claims at being apolitical and ideology free died during the science race of the cold war. J.D. Bernal wrote in 1958, “The only time I could get my ideas translated in any way into action in the real world was in the service of war.”ivThe militarization and commodification of science was a fait accompli.
There were many efforts initiated in the 20th century to widen the perspective of scientists and to stop those projects which were destructive to humanity in favour of those which would be beneficial. Protests over scientists’ participation in weapons of mass destruction and exploitation of the environment were held in the late sixties, including the formation of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) in 1969. The Edinburgh branch of BSSRS helped run a teach-in about pollution which was attended by an estimated thousand people in 1970.v“It becomes essential to take binding steps which cut off one’s line of retreat… we have to fix it so they wouldn’t have us back even if we wanted to come.” Robert Young declared in 1977.vi
By the 1980s, the removal of most research out of universities and into top secret research facilities muzzled dissent and greatly reduced awareness of what science was doing.vii The development of Science and Technology Studies (STS) to study the relationship between scientific knowledge, technological systems, and society was a painful attempt to study the impact of scientific isolation from society from an academic vantage point still isolated from society.viii The earlier radical science movement was often explicitly socialist, even explicitly Marxist. After the political failures of communism and technological utopia, striving for any type of political end fell very out of favour. Scientific circles sought to remove politics and ideology from their organizations and work entirely, returning to 1926 when Martin Heidegger declared “the end of philosophy”, and claimed that “science does not think”.ix
Of course, this was the equivalent of burying their heads in the sand as outside the lab, in the offices of their directors and funders, they were owned by politics and capitalist ideology. As journalism loses any claims of being unbiased as soon as it selects a topic as newsworthy, science is not apolitical as soon as it selects a topic of study. Science does not follow purely intellectual inquiry in pursuit of the greatest understanding. Science is not a science. Science has been a means of allowing officially accepted truths to emanate from only one class under direction from the ruling class. What scientific thought is doing much of the time is no more or less than what this book is doing: providing one framework out of a vast array of different possible frameworks and choosing to view the world through that framework and study only the issues that make up that framework. This can be a very helpful exercise for providing a certain perspective but it certainly does not result in a single indisputable truth.
“Scientists always stomp around meetings talking about ‘bridging the two-culture gap’, but when scores of people from outside the sciences begin to build just that bridge, they recoil in horror and want to impose the strangest of all gags on free speech since Socrates: only scientists should speak about science!” – Bruno Latour, 1999x
The much resisted opening of the knowledge hoarded by science, as well as long overdue scrutiny of the activities of scientists, has brought a great deal of very valid criticism of both. The slur that anyone who questions them is anti-science is ironically used to silence anyone who questions the methods and motivations of scientists. The idea that criticism or a demand for transparency is an attack, or that any criticism is dangerous and anti-knowledge, is simply more evidence of the scientific class acting like a closed and extremist cult instead of a method of producing verified knowledge. This is the reaction of an elite class outraged and panickedxi that anyone is questioning their authority and control over knowledge, much like news media did before them. If scientists are no longer an ingroup with very different rules for their outgroups, then everyone must be free to examine them just as they examine everyone. Despite the very popular and publicly redeeming efforts of the scientific community in the work to protect the environment, and the fight against industry for acceptance of scientific findings on the environment, there is still no integrated structure of public audit or transparency.
Thomas Kuhn could point out in 1962 that science viewed the world through a series of periodically revolutionized paradigmsxii but the same critique from the poststructuralists outside the scientific community was met by enough hostility that the critique and reaction were popularly dubbed the Science Wars of the 1990s. In Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Sciencexiii Paul Gross and Norman Levitt insist that those who question them do not believe in reality itself. Who but science could claim that only they know reality and they alone are influenced by nothing? We are to believe they create their ideas directly from the primordial soup, a godlike feat indeed. This unquestioning belief that science has the sole key to facts and reality has given us an educational system that graduates people more ignorant than when they went in. There is a point in the process of being educated on a topic when the student is full of information and convinced they have all the facts and solutions. If education progresses and experience is broadened, they will discover nuance and context and layers of alternating perspectives and realize they have only ideas which may or may not bring the results they are hoping for. Without this broadened perspective, scientists become more convinced in their own infallibility, or at least superiority. At least the uneducated understand their own ignorance.
The highly inaccurate and unscientific idea that the challengers of science are The Academic Left is an invitation to further persecute that subsect of academia who were already purged from academia and driven from their jobs in the west during the cold war. In a brief exchange with a New York Review of Books literary criticxiv the authors also bring the critic’s leftist politics to the forefront in the first paragraph of their rebuttal. For a pair of scientists intent on proving that science is apolitical, it is obvious that mentioning someone’s political beliefs is their go to method of lumping all of their critics together and discrediting all of their beliefs based on one political belief. The Academic Left is also a not very veiled reminder that the ideas of everyone who is not a caucasian man are still superstition. Others may acquire education but then their ideas are just “higher superstition”. The reference to “the left” is also a nod to the history of radical science which attempted to warn the world about environmental destruction and weapons manufacturing in the 1960s and 1970s. A 1977 Daily Mail article foreshadowed the 1994 book when it depicted a BSSRS action against the British Science Association as “the Left has Science by the throat” with no acknowledgment that the BSSRS were also scientists.
The political accusations are also meant to imply that the authors are, by defending the status quo, apolitical. Establishment scientists see themselves as an international class like Olympians, and like Olympians, they see themselves as apolitical while standing on politically funded podiums representing political alliances. The co-option of science by industry is depicted as the conventional stance and the fight for science for humanity is depicted as a fringe attack on science. The casting out the Left from science and the depiction of all opposition as the Left is nothing if not political. Choosing the status quo is not the same as being apolitical or non-ideological. Higher Superstition claimed an agenda by “postmodern and feminist critics, AIDS activists, environmentalists, animal rights advocates and others”xv against “reality”. It is not hard to discern in their defense of reality a political defense of the supremacy of the status quo and the exceptionalism of the wealthy, western man.
BSSRS cartoon about sexism in science
It is only with no connection at all to reality that a person could fail to notice, particularly in the 1990s, the neglect of diseases such as AIDS (or now ebola), the lack of representation of women and minorities in test results or the experimentation on lower classes for the benefit of higher classes. The reality science described was of course a reflection of the bigotries and group narcissism of the scientific community. Scientists’ insistence on presenting themselves as a pure meritocracy depends on public acceptance of this reality. Valuations of people which place IQ above strength or kindness and compensate years of university ahead of shortened life expectancy is part of the reality science has created for us. The group narcissism of scientists sees itself as the standard and lashes out at the slightest criticism. Like a traveler in Einstein’s elevator they are not fit to measure or even detect the elevator they are traveling in.
Cartoon from Science for People, issue 43
As Gary Wersky described in 2007, “The conviction grew in some that, far from being allies in the fight against ‘higher superstition’, STS ‘social constructionists’ had joined hands with an academic left made up of feminist scholars and postmodernist English professors in an unholy conspiracy to undermine the legitimacy and authority of science.”xvi By depicting all critics as a block of uniform opinion and politically motivated ideology and depicting all criticism as an existential threat, science slammed and bolted the doors to constructive (or deconstructive) criticism. This lack of acceptance of outside critique led to criticism being formed outside of the community instead of in tandem with it. Such criticism was then rejected by scientists who complained it frequently lacked both understanding and intellectual rigour. Science refused any meaningful use of outside critique and forced all interested parties into two parallel and uncommunicating streams. Science lost the opportunity to open their epistemic communities and create knowledge bridges which would provide much needed critique in a rigorously vetted and usable standard. They instead left their critics free to collect an outside audience to view both the closed hostility of the scientific community and any sometimes poorly founded sniping of those outside. The public is now left with a choice between acceptance of the wildest of conspiracy theorists or blind faith in the closed and frequently sociopathic science industry because scientists refuse to be questioned by those they very transparently see as inferiors.
The distrust sown and never reconciled was easily exploited by demagogues such as Thatcher and Reagan. Science became even more isolated and alienated from a misunderstanding and judgmental public and even more did they require the protection of their exploiters from government and industry. The hostility perplexed Bruno Latour as he wrote “Far from not believing in reality, surely science studies has added reality to science.”xvii But the reality added by science studies was reality from the perspective of outgroups and it polluted the clear lens of the scientific community, the only view accepted by them as the one clear reality. “How could we be pitted against the scientists?” Latour wondered. “Are biologists anti-life, astronomers anti-stars, immunologists anti-anti-bodies?” Sadly, the answer is not a clear no. Scientists, from the time science first decided that nature would reveal its secrets more readily under torture, have most often taken positions in opposition to the objects of their study. Scientists who are so suspicious of science studies may be projecting from their own relationship to those they study.
“The duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and … attack it from every side.” – Hasan Ibn al-Haytham 1011-1021
Whether science likes it or not, science is a part of a wider community and impacts a wider community and must be audited by and transparent to all those they affect. The insistence that we are to believe that all scientific and industrial developments are safe until proven unsafe or that we are to trust regulatory boards and studies commissioned and funded by the very industry that would be profiting from it are not reasonable. Those scientists who see doubt of them as a lack of respect for their higher ranking, and their doubt of the experiences of the lower classes as healthy skepticism, must be overruled. Outside critique must be integrated within the process of science and not seen as an enemy attack. The scientific method must be expanded to include integration and feedback with the entire society and ecosystem impacted.
The most persistent complaint of scientists is that their critics do not have the knowledge to critique them usefully. The Socal hoax in 1996 involved a physicist convincing a small academic journal to publish a parody of the worst of scientific critique as evidence of their lack of scientific rigour. He was asked to change all of the worst elements of the article and refused. The journal published his article in the end in deference to his scientific credentials as he was the only natural scientist who had submitted to their Science Wars edition and thus they became the butt of the hoax. Despite the fact that he proved they “felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject”xviii he also proved much more than he set out to do.
Social Text was a small publication in no way to be confused with a professional science journal. The alternative takeaway from the Socal Affair is that journals show deference to the scientific community over those trying to be heard from the outside, even in the most sympathetic of editions of the most sympathetic of journals. He also proved that journals will publish a certified expert even when it is obvious to them that his methods and conclusions are not of a professional standard. The Socal Affair did not prove that this same deference was afforded to anyone not recognized as an expert and the journal’s response that “Less well known authors who submit unsolicited articles to journals like ours may now come under needless suspicion”xix intimated that he had aggravated the credibility divide. The fact that science’s gossip magazine Lingua Franca published Socal’s exposé with no opportunity for rebuttal given to the journal even further shows the double standards between the two worlds as does the fact that Socal suffered no professional repercussions for his outgroup hoax which would certainly not have been tolerated within the community of professional scientific journals. Socal’s depiction of the outside critics as “barbarian hordes”xx did more to illustrate the problem with science than the problem with its critics. Science responded to perceived criticism that they were an isolated and narcissistic community with demands for isolation and proof of group narcissism.
The unfortunate part of this reaction is not just the loss to science but also the loss to its critics. There were a great many valid criticisms that needed to be made about the excesses of reactionary poststructionalism in the 1990s, and we are feeling the repercussions from the lack of correction today. The idea grew among the political descendants of radical science that a lack of cultural hegemony had contributed to the failure of Marxism, so they invested more and more into identity politics. Rojek and Turner in 2000, while once more depicting science critics in the U.K. as Left-wing, also contributed valid points. They critiqued the critics own group narcissism including “the self image …[that cultural studies] are closer to material reality” and “its own variety of moral arrogance, intellectual narrowness and over-confidence”. They asserted that cultural studies contributed to revising power relationships primarily at an aesthetic level, was deeply politicized and magnified current local conditions over broader and historical trends. They pointed out the negative and reactive nature of postmodernism which produced “an undecideable sea of micro-relationships” and “the privileging of the cultural over the social and economic”. They also claimed that postmodernism “Although profoundly politicized … has no tenable or sustained political agenda” and accused its proponents of careerism.xxi
Seventeen years later, it is obvious that the above criticism was valid and ought to have received more discussion and resolution. Instead, each side progressed in hostile and opposing thought bubbles, each pointing at how bad the other is, like two political parties. Neither side included the wider public and neither offered solutions to use criticism more effectively. Anger sells and pointing out faults is easy. Solutions are difficult to develop, difficult to explain and risky to implement. Far fewer people read scientific papers than social media. Criticism of a broad societal hierarchy devolved into the rise of micropolitics and the social media microcelebrity hierarchy. Dissidence became a career, not a means to a solution. Division and hostility sell. The everything is political post modernists of academia brought us the everyone is a demographic politicians of representative democracy and the every microaggression is a career thought leaders of Twitter.
The division of dissent into packets of identity politics allowed scientific establishment to appease the individual sects with initiatives of political correctness. The radical science of the 1960s and 1970s, which fought issues such as weapons, environmental destruction and technologies of political control, were transformed into institutions for cultural studies and feminist critiques. Radical magazines like Science for People,Radical Science Journal and Undercurrents were replaced by sectarian courses of study, politically pleasing, reactive, narrow in perspective and low on facts. Radical science had also been concerned with inclusion of marginalized groups but today it is the issues which are marginalized. A war which was to fight the direction humanity was taking was reduced to a war over whether all sects were properly represented in our mutual destruction.
Thanks partly to its critics, science has lost all of its metanarratives. There is no longer a goal specific to science, or none which is acknowledged. There is a purpose to all action, and where it is not defined by the actor they will follow a purpose assigned to them. In the case of science, they follow their funders and their purpose is to exploit the earth and its inhabitants for maximum profit. Even where scientists fight against the destruction of the earth in its entirety, that is in line with their capitalist mandate. They are still enabling the exploitation of each piece of it individually. The idea that science is too impartial and apolitical to follow a metanarrative is contradictory to the very existence of science. Science once defined itself and its claim to reason as the very essence of humanity, as the higher purpose of humanity’s existence and as proof of humanity’s superiority. Without the idea of collecting, cataloguing and expanding all the knowledge of humanity, science would never have existed much less had a singular goal to follow with such religious zeal. The scientific community needs to once more clearly define its purpose.
It is not enough for science to be separated from malevolence by a few degrees to claim to be apolitical. The benefits to the scientific community of alliance with militaries and governments is a loss for collaboration and global knowledge. A movement which, for all its faults, existed to build commons knowledge for the betterment of humanity willingly walked into secret chambers to work for the destruction of humanity. Autonomy for groups in society is a privilege granted by the wider societies. This privilege can and should be lost when the group begins to act in a manner which is a danger to the wider society. The autonomy and trust enjoyed by many in the higher stratas of knowledge, religion and politics has been proven repeatedly to be dangerous to all of their out groups. These groups can no longer be organized in isolated and autonomous stratas. The work of scientists affects entire communities not in their stratas. Input from and transparency to the rest of the user groups is essential.