I started articulating some thoughts in the last newsletter about a triad, in the fashion of fragile–robust–antifragile (from Taleb’s 2012 book) , which contained the states of unsustainable, sustainable and regenerative.
The main thing bugging me was that making something sustainable, and moving towards a regenerative version of it, aren’t necessarily in the same direction.
I started sketching out this in a variety of ways, looking for a representation that showed that the sustainable being the same shape and size as the unsustainable, but just constituted differently. Below is a more formal version of that.
Where the central unsustainable model has fragile elements to address, moving to sustainability allows the same model to persist, just with differently parts in place of those unsustainable ones. Though whether anyone ever gets to true sustainability is a bigger point.
N.B. Whilst sustainability might commonly understood as being environmental, it’s also helpful to think of it in other ways. It could be values based – how do people perceive what you’re doing, and judge accordingly – or politically bound by imminent regulation, and so on.
Moving in the other direction, you peer into the gaps in the fragility of your current model, and exploring what breaking these apart would do. What do these constituent parts look like as part of a larger, emergent future? What else to the pieces mix with, which other actors? What grows when you encourage it?
It feels like these two things are moving in opposite directions… but only perhaps in certain circumstances. And we’ll come back to the context thing shortly.
But one key thing for me around the language used to describe the relationships between unsustainable, sustainable and regenerative, is just how directional it often is.
For instance, you read people describing “moving beyond” sustainability and towards regeneration. This language has a spatial dimension, and suggests that should you get to sustainability first, then the distance left to travel towards a regenerative state will surely be closer.
So perhaps, I thought, the right word is not beyond, but maybe after? A temporal understanding, rather than a spatial one.
Once you’ve been through the place where you can make an organisation think about sustainability, then perhaps they’re ready for regenerative design?
However, this is where context comes in. It depends. On the company, the culture, the effort requires, the industry standards, the customers and communities, and, well, everything.
As always, I’m interested in the how. And in this case, how do you work out which the right thing is to do?
I felt it was worth sharing an early stage version of something that might help with that which for the time being, I’m calling it Regenerative Triangulation.
The same three states exists; unsustainable, sustainable, regenerative. The starting point, where you are today, is unsustainable in some regard.
You then need to articulate two images of the future.
The first is what it means to get to a sustainable future, and whether or not that is above or below the line in Bill Reed’s original work.
The second point is what a regenerative future would look like for you, and how you might get there.
Now place each point at a distance which represents what it takes to get achieve those states; likely some combination of time, resources, mindsets, conditions that tells you how hard each will be.
(I suspect there’s a rough and ready formula which can help here that I don’t have quite yet.)
Now you can draw two lines from your starting position, to each of the two places on the map. The length of line x takes you to sustainable, and the length of line y takes you to regenerative.
But here’s the rub; if you stop off at sustainable first, you (or those who come after you) also have to traverse line z at some point in the future.
My initial hunch is that mapping out these context specific relationships will help organisations think about some indicative short and medium-term strategies.
In the example on the left here, if feels that sustainability might be in the same general direction as a regenerative future. It’s probably worth aiming for in the short term. Whereas the example on the right feels like sustainability would definitely mean taking the long way round.
I also think you could make an argument for saying that if you do stop at sustainability first, it changes the final destination point; in some cases because you’ve built in more resistance to achieving it, in others you might bring it closer as the journey has been started.
More to think about for sure. Drop me a message if there are other things you think I should look at, or you want to just discuss it a bit more. I might host an open session at some point if enough folk are interested in contributing.
I sent out the latest edition of the Artefacts newsletter earlier this week, 3000+ words on a variety of things. Interestingly, various people got in touch with contributions, thoughts, questions, and more, but all via different platforms. There was no one place to share responses which other people might see and get something from too.
…something something platform fragmentation…
Anyway, as a possible one-off, here’s the Artefacts Letter Page – a response to some of the correspondence which might be useful for others.
Having been in a set of Wardley Mapping sessions for the last couple of weeks – the point about the process of mapping being potentially of more value then the maps that come out of the process really hit home.
The pointer to Jeet Kune Do was both useful and fascinating, and something I can mine for metaphors. If I wanted to go one level deeper than Wikipedia in understanding the thinking behind it, do you have any recommended books before I start asking around?
I’m no expert in Wardley Mapping, though the quote from Dr Roser Pujadas in the newsletter (“Mapping is a social practice of sensemaking that shifts from individual cognition to shared understanding”.) was taken from her talk at one of the Map Camp conferences (2019 I think..?).
And not long after that, I tried some for a client, rather than with a client, as circumstances dictated, and it didn’t take. I walked through the stages of the mapping, and implicit recommendations… yet would have been better to stick to just the latter.
Maybe maps in general, and Wardley Maps in particular, are an artefact of a much deeper, richer conversation between people in this wort of work context, and hopeless if you just show people the map afterwards.
Good question on the Jeet Kune Do stuff, I think most of my learning about it was just internet reading rather than specific books. I’ve found an old talk I gave in Norway here, where I’m talking about it specifically as an approach to learn from, and uses the famous ‘Be Water’ clip to illustrate the deeper idea.
But another reader has something related…
I find myself wondering if (system) mapping is a zeitgeisty symptom of dominance and/or control issues (ergo also an acknowledgement of the increasing loss/lack of it in our late-stage civilisational entropy). Designers will presumably continue to make bigger, more complex maps to compensate?
Firstly, I agree in a roundabout way about some of the underpinning symptoms (dominance/control/existential dread etc). I also wonder if it’s in part because Designers (note the capital D) are furnished with the skill-sets and tools to, and the heart of make, make pretty visualisations of things. And the prettier something looks, the less people feel as if it’s an emerging invitation to question, rather than a final, declarative vision (and to be accepted or rejected wholesale).
Secondly, I love the shuhari and will fall down that rabbit hole a little more I think. On first glance, it makes me also think of the story of the apprentice / journeyman / guildmaster progress as told in The Craftsman by Richard Sennett; start just by copying the form (the rules), then travel to see how the rules are applied in different contexts, and then finally present to a local guild your own version of how the rules would be constituted in your own house.
I was also intrigued by the idea of how frameworks come and go – that they have a lifespan and that no one has really come up with one for the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world we find ourselves in. A colleague and I have talked at length about how frameworks in these times might just be true artifacts – a snippet, a map, a place to take notes – but certainly not a way to make decisions when the minute after you fill in the framework, the world has changed.
Instead, we need tools to help us recognize the upcoming pivots we need to make. Take the decision….there are no wrong ones….and be watching for the signals that you need to adjust. How do we recognize these signals? What are the signals? Can we see them fast enough? Are we agile enough to change at the pace we need to? Can we make the initial decision fast enough and make the next one fast enough, etc?
A way, or even a ‘place’, to make these decisions, is maybe a good way to think about these artefacts/artifacts (choose whichever you wish, transatlantic friends). And then they can be discarded, as the decision is agreed. They’re more tools in that respect than maps, and support collective exploration and agreed direction. I’ve not used Cynefin nearly enough to properly understand it’s usefulness in different circumstances, but from what I do think I know is that it helps you see what sort of system you’re in, and what decision you might take next.
On finding those upcoming pivots and the like, one of the ways we’ve used Zenko Mapping as a framework in this case is to ask people to describe projects by identifying ‘5 key moments where a project changed’. Over time, you can start collecting these together across projects, and start to spot patterns around what needs to change and where.
I completely agree on the triad-ness of Unsustainability, Sustainability, Regenerative. There’s lots of people looking to reach closed-loop production systems first, then regenerative. Regenerative is going to have a completely different manifestation/impact than a closed-loop system, which can at times feel like a material version of the minor efficiency gains cars are chasing.
This is my gut feeling too, though lots more reading and thinking to be done. Just ‘making a sustainable version of X’ does not naturally led to ‘making Y which replaces the extractive nature of X in the first place, PLUS starts to regenerate some of etc damage done’.
I like the anti fragile and regenerative approach/idea. Are you aware of Frijof Capra and his Web of Life book?
I recently read it and what you wrote reminded me of the chaos and velocity of metabolism of cells and how that whole process is quite chaotic but also regenerative. I think this concept also links into entropy but I wouldn’t know how to combine all those ideas and make it fun and interactive in a workshop for a purpose.
I am not aware of The Web of Life, but it’s now added to the list. You pick up on a really good point too about how do you take these ideas, and embed them practically in formats (workshops, frameworks, even talks) that gives people more reason to do them than to not. I like to think that’s what I’m fairly good at after doing it for a while, but grappling something this complex is making me think very hard about it indeed.
Well, not no butter. But certainly less than you’d expect. Another example of what producers are having to do in the face of ever-rising input costs.
The wrappers are probably long paid for in bulk. The boxes they’re packed into measured for the original dimensions. The size expectations of what a portion of butter looks like set in the minds of people.
“So what if we… worked out how to put only 75% of the butter in there?”
📢 Calling all futurists, changemakers, change-seekers, innovators 📢 .
Come spend two weeks this summer at IED in Barcelona attending the Innovation and Future Thinking course. We will be bringing together a group of inspirational local and international lecturers, immersing ourselves in the local and regional context through a series of site visits, and applying practices from foresight and futures thinking. Keep reading for more details.
Apply now if you’d like a place, or send it on to someone you think might. See you on July 10, 2023!
Each year in the Innovation and Future Thinking course at IED Barcelona, we select a theme to ground our work. This provides students with a lens through which to explore the world, a platform to help understand the methods and tools used to critically assess possible futures, and a common language in which the cohort can communicate what they uncover.
Perhaps most importantly of all, given the global diversity of the course and the highly contextual nature of the field, we look for a theme that both connects students to the city, and is applicable to their practice and profession beyond the course. As always, we were making notes on potential themes for this year during the course last July. More than ever, we could keenly feel the presence of climate in every field trip, every conversation with residents, and every link found in secondary research.
When a city announces it is increasing the number of climate shelters for that summer to almost 200, it’s hard not to think about the implications for the future.
This summer we knew we wanted to explore the urgent and important challenges of the climate crisis, the impacts presently – and yet to be – felt in Barcelona as well as the wider region of Catalunya. How will Barcelona need to adapt as the city, the region, and the country all continue to get hotter year upon year?
It is a big question, and as the course is only two weeks long, we want to tighten the enquiry a little. So our theme for the course this year is Taking Care Of Water,a phrase taken directly from one of the key changes in the 2018-30 Barcelona Climate Plan.
Taking Care Of Water
How will the region prepare for a reduced availability of potable water in the context of drought? Or on the flip side, prepare for a greater increase of flooding due to unprecedented rainfall.What effects can we expect to see on the food people eat, the work they do, the communities they’re part of, the places they live, and the services which support them?
Usefully, the Climate Plan sets out some goals that we should by now be on the verge of seeing come to fruition (or not). We will use the first half of the course to see how much progress has been made, gaining first hand experience by 1) immersing ourselves in the city through a series of site visits – to build a deeper and broader understanding of the landscape, and 2) guest speakers – each of whom will bring a different perspective and set of priorities to the debate.
We will seek to identify where in Barcelona problems are likely to arise, the form they will appear in, and the evidence of how they manifest themselves already. Understanding the historic and present day dynamics are a vital first step in beginning to understand how potential futures may unfold.
The second half will build on the first week, informing the development of specific briefs – emerging from the research – for teams to respond to. We will introduce and guide teams through the creation of a variety of outcomes from speculative products, to prototyping services, imagining new roles for citizens, innovative infrastructure, radical policies, developing new mental models, or forging new narratives.
The course will culminate in a final presentation, an opportunity for students to share their work with a group of invited external guests, receive feedback, and engage in meaningful discussion. Central to all of this is making sure students leave with a practical, usable set of skills, and a firm understanding of what this kind of work can be used to achieve.
Over the past nine years of IEDIFT, we’ve seen how far students can get even in a short time; by creating a learning environment that invites exploration, challenges the status quo, and promotes new ways of doing and knowing, this course has always tried to prompt transformative action. This year, we want to harness that energy in order to think and act differently around one of the world’s most pressing challenges.
Apply now if you’d like a place, or send it on to someone you think might…
We’ll see you on the streets of Barcelona in July.
Set up by Scott Smith of Changeist in 2014, and taken over by John V Willshire of Smithery in 2017, and this year will be co-cordinated for the first time by John and Toban Shadlyn. This two week summer course was conceived and designed to be a practical futures course for the streets. Past themes have included the Futures of Payments, Identity, Food, Transport, The ‘Futures and Follies of the Full-Stack Habitat’, and the Expansion of the Superblocks (Superillas). Past guest lecturers have included Christina Bifano, Laura Cleries, Andres Colmenares, Susan Cox-Smith, Dan Hill, Fabien Girardin, Natalie Kane, Tobias Revell and Elisabet Roselló.
This week I read Zoe Scaman’s latest report on communities; there probably aren’t many (if any) people paying as much attention at the intersections behind brands, agencies and whatever community is in these conversations today. If that’s your bag, do check it out.
It did spur one particular thought in my mind; are we still missing the macro scalability piece? What happens when everyone does this?
Back in 2009, I published a thesis at the end of the IPA excellence diploma, entitled ‘The Communis Manifesto‘. The abstract neatly sums it up, as you’d hope:
“The brand communications which evolved in the mass media era are becoming more and more ineffective at changing peoples’ perceptions of companies and brands.
The connections people make and communities they form nowadays are increasingly where they source their information; people are influenced most by people and communities.
I believe that the future of brand communications lies in finding a way to become part of communities, and communicate with them in a way that is shared, participatory and reciprocal.
In this way companies can affect peoples’ perceptions of them, and make all of their brand communications more effective”
What was interesting, when I reflected on it for the Nick Kendall’s book celebrating the diploma (What is a 21st Century Brand?), was that I only thought in the micro scale.
Individual examples, plans for how a single company might do this, etc.
It largely misses the macro implications of trying to do this when everyone else is too.
The cognitive burden on people trying to interact deeply, properly, with mutual benefit accruing all round, doesn’t yet stack up when you think about being a member of multiple communities.
People only have so much time to give.
The exhaustion of active participation across too many communities is a real life issue for many anyway, never mind adding in more in a digital realm.
Yet a different thought struck me this morning.
Might we perhaps begin to see technology companies offer an alternative use of LLMs (Large Language Models, or ‘AI’ in the current vernacular… that’s a whole other blog post).
“Let us be you for you”.
How could you train AI agents to act and participate in communities as you would, without you having to be there?
What continually updated information would it need to work well, to be a representative of you now?
Would you have a regular check-in with all of your different prosthetic selves?
The house-party protocol from Iron Man 3, if you will…
The most crucial question of that line of thought is how would people reconcile these agents as part of themselves?
Social media profiles are one thing; they’re an extension of a specific type of self, but there’s always-on, active decision-making for the most part.
Because perhaps the most interesting part of Zoe’s presentation is her description of the societal shifts sparking this interest. Increased isolation, polarised discourse, generations set adrift from the established order of things.
It feels pretty bleak out there for a lot of people. How would having to manage even more of your prosthetic selves in that world help you find belonging?
Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should, etc etc
…wait, what, that’s not true, how can you even go about claiming that?
Of course I didn’t create LEGO Serious Play.
But ChatGPT claims I did…
It’s just so damn eager to please sometimes, it’ll say anything.
Not that I’m sitting all day asking LLMs who I am (now there’s an identity crisis waiting to happen).
Instead, I was rebuilding the Artefact Shop, and just as an experiment, was using ChatGPT as my copilot to do so. Initially of course, I was just using it as a sub-editor – how would you improve this text, please – and getting back the sort of wind-tunnelled prose you might expect. It’s fine. I’m going to leave it up for a while, see how folk respond.
Then I idly wondered how far I could take things? What sort of response might I get if I asked about Artefact Cards generally?
It starts well enough. There’s clearly enough online for it to get a sense of the core idea.
Then the drift begins, and it starts assuming some things Artefact Cards might do, perhaps based on what other design card decks do? Finally, it disappears into an alternative dimension, where an agency called More Than Minutes created them (they are real, I checked, but mostly do conference visualisations and the like).
The glaring errors in ChatGPT, and any other LLM, are easy to spot.
It’s the small ones that are harder.
If you just give it free rein to make associations, you can only expect it to make connections freely, and need to double, triple check what it produces (like the first diagram on the left). Whereas if you give it a bit more structure, bound by connections you know exist, maybe there’s less wiggle room to go off elsewhere.
Perhaps that’s a useful way to thinking about it. It’s not presenting you with a paragraph or two of opinion and facts; it doesn’t know anything. Instead, it’s bringing you back a cluster of proximate things which could be stitched together in a particular way, which can pass you by if you don’t know any better. Sometimes it gets lucky. Often it doesn’t. And the onus is on you to know the difference.
For the past five years or so, I’ve been taking photos at Gatwick Airport. No, not of planes taking off. Nothing as exciting as that.
Photos of the water refill machines.
I know. Exciting, right? It’s up there with my growing photo collection of crap hand dryers inspired by Dyson’s increasing terrible forays into the field. More on those another day, if you’re really unlucky.
What I’m really interested in with the water machines is the data. The small screen to the top right tells everyone how many disposable water bottles this machine ‘has saved’.
There are two machines I visit most often, and have a rough idea of how fast the ticker goes up. The one that’s been there longest is in the low hundreds of thousands. But as I mainly fly from Gatwick when I go anywhere, it’s been hard to know what *good* looks like.
Then I went to Heathrow this week, and saw this machine; possibly older, given the state of it, but it’s headed up over three million uses, which puts the Gatwick numbers in the shade.
If I was *really* interested enough, I guess I could write to both airports, perhaps, and ask if they track the data properly, and could send me it. It poses interesting questions about what’s behind the screen: does it save the data with a time stamp? Can an engineer download the historical data.
Is it, perhaps, even live – is someone sitting in the water machine company HQ watching all the data creep up?
I doubt it, to be honest, having worked with enough companies to understand what gets prioritised in shipping products and services.
Instead, I think this data is probably just leaked deliberately into public, inferring that good is being done, without really using the data to make sure good is done more regularly, at greater pace.
Imagine instead you* started analysing this data in the background, matching it up to flight patterns, country destinations, water bottle sales points in airports.
*Actually, not you. Some low level, narrow AI type thing that could make suggestions for you. Want to accelerate the rate of water bottle replacement? Here’s the first five things to do at your airport.
AI as a basic, low-level reckon-engine. I could get behind that.
I didn’t feel ready to start this year. Instead, I decided it was time to redesign the home office.
Our work went longer into December than it would normally, yes, but there was something more to it than that. After twelve months that saw the return of work trips abroad, two weeks teaching in Barcelona, and an ongoing tentative, collective remaking of what work was now, I felt more inclined come January 3rd to reflect and shape the surroundings of Smithery.
And not in the piecemeal fashion that I’d done before.
It’s probably fairly obvious; all the signals, wherever you work, point to a different future around gathering together to get things done. As a company we work with a number of clients on different projects concurrently. There used to be greater value in being in London more often, as clients who worked in the city were likely to be there most of the week.
Nowadays, there’s no density of presence across multiple clients – even if people are in of two or three days, it’s never the same ones – so our permanent desk presence at Makerversity has no real need to return. We’re still members, it’s the best environment I’ve worked in ever in London, and I pop in whenever I’m passing. But there’s no need for a percent base there.
Our home office then, more than ever, is the heart of Smithery – the nest, perhaps, if we want to go down The Poetics of Spaceroute – and accordingly I felt it deserved much more attention.
It’s taken us a week. Which is admittedly longer than I’d hoped.
But to sit here writing (an admittedly self-indulgent) piece in this space feels… well, delightful.
What’s changed, then?
The room is now split in two; a working half, and a study half.
Only a few pieces of furniture are new, most are repurposed. The desk I’m sitting it is one we found in a closing down sale in the aftermath of 2008’s financial crisis (which feels kind of apt given what may be ahead). I find it a good reminder to invest in thing that last and can be open to reinvention. This has been a desk, a kitchen table, a dining area shelf, a kids table at New Year, and more besides.
I still subscribe to Austin Kleon’s idea of the digital desk and the physical desk; two separate spaces to work differently at. Behind me, there’s a smaller desk against the wall, with a board full of projects, ideas, sketches and more.
Colour wise, with wooden floors it would have been very easy to disappear down the slightly sterile greys and whites which still seem to dominate a lot of interiors. Instead, I wanted to pick out the colour in the things we owned already, and find a punchier way of bringing them together. Hence the teals, reds, oranges and so on, and leaning into natural wood surfaces wherever possible.
Then, once the hard work was done in redecorating, arranging took another couple of days. The thing that I think must dominate any thoughts of working space at home is probably what it’s going to look like on Zoom…
Finding a way to make a wall work in real life, and yet still frame you well on a video, is something I’m still working on. But this is fairly good to be going on with, I think.
It’ll be interesting to see how the camera set up I’m using (Opal C1 currently) reacts to the different colour in the background, through different phases of the day and different weather conditions.
Finally, I feel we’re now into the final tweaks; putting up pictures, arranging objects and prompts.
My favourite thing I’ve started experimenting with is using a prism cube. By placing it in particular places on certain days, it catches the sun and cascades little assemblages of colour around the room. I wonder if I can make it pick out certain sections of the bookshelves on particular days of the year, like a mundane version of the Staff of Ra from Raiders of the Lost Ark?
You’ve likely read the first post, introducing the context for this tool, the Community Power Compass, and how it pulls three key freedoms and controls from The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber & David Wengrow. The post then, is the practical session; how might you use each of these segments to consider the sort of community you’re looking at, joining, leaving or forming.
1. Freedom to Disobey
When you’re part of a community, how easy is it for you to dissent, disagree, argue a case in a way in which it is properly heard? And afterwards, what you feel is the right thing to do anyway?
Graeber & Wengrow refer to this as ‘the freedom to disobey arbitrary commands‘, where no central authority has the power to make people comply with their will. Instead, you have to try and persuade people.
The emphasis is on examining how rich, diverse debate can be a very valuable part of the decision-making process for societies. If you raise a different perspective from the common one presented, you would hope not to be dismissed out of hand, ignored or ostracised. Instead, your perspective adds to a collective understanding.
The conversation to understand different views makes for a more powerful community. The conversation is more dialogic than dialectic – something I touched on in The Dialogic Brand work back in 2013 or so, examining where brands could evolve from being centralised and one-dimensional into being a decentralised total of many ideas.
It makes me intrigued by the rhetoric in the communities around Web3 and Crypto. If an arbitrary command is from a distributed source of power, can you still ignore it? For instance, HODL has evolved to being a communal rallying call for everyone with a given investment in a cryptocurrency (originally Bitcoin) to not sell. No matter what. Not easy today (Wednesday 15th June, as I write), and not even possible for all. And yet, I think, fairly easy to disobey… who will ever know?
The Freedom to Disobey becomes important (and complex) in realms where there are different, new ways of encoding agreement. If you don’t have that freedom, you can be increasingly part of something you’re no longer comfortable with.
Starter Questions: When I speak, am I being heard? How many different voices and viewpoints are properly recognised? What formal or informal processes are there around conversations? Where do we discuss and debate? How do we decide? How do we change our minds?
2. Freedom of Movement
Do you remember the first time you left Facebook? I actually managed to leave Facebook the month after starting Smithery, but I’ve been particularly unsuccessful in leaving other services (notably Twitter). But the lock-in of the Web 2.0 business model has always been plain to see, and keenly felt for all.
In exchange for the free service, we’ll take your data, activity, connections and graph, and make money that way. It’s meant that Web 2.0 companies have spent a lot of their time, money and energy on keeping people locked in to their services, buying others that threaten them, and generally closing down connectivity between services. It may have been your data once upon a time, but it’s locked up in a system you can’t see.
The next generation of social networks, then, are seemingly driven in part by a desire to undo this Faustian pact. This is manifesting in different ways, of course. Early examples in this Bloomberg article from last month talk of building new social networks that are decentralised and run by their members.
When you dig into it, the detail around the how is scant (for the moment). But the intention is there; imagine your social profile was yours, to move between sites and services, encounters and interactions, as you wished.
As with all Web3 things, it’s really good to ask ‘but why does that need to be on a blockchain‘ at all times. It raises interesting (and challenging) questions across social, moral and technological boundaries. Emerging initiatives like Jack Dorsey’s Web5 (more here & here) are asking those questions in different ways, and protecting more of the freedoms that Graeber & Wengrow might recognise (e.g. that initiative is open-source).
The direction feels in keeping with the idea of the Freedom to Move. Not just to ability to leave your home and surroundings, but to be able to join another just as easily. It allows people and communities to grow and evolve over time, not be trapped in a specific location because of the needs of the powerful at the centre.
Starter Questions: What constitutes my presence here? How do I sign up? What do I sign away? What do I bring or create? How much is already mine? Of that stuff, what can I leave with? Where can I go afterwards? Does this space work like other spaces?
3. Freedom to Reorganise
The third of the freedoms is really interesting; “the freedom to imagine, then practically enact, different forms of social existence” as Wengrow referred to it in a recent interview in the Real Review.
It’s also the case that the third freedom is dependent somewhat on the first two; you should have the ability to leave (en masse as an ultimate threat, of course) if you’re prevented from being able to firstly reimagine the community you’re in, and then enact that new idea to change the balance of power.
In The Dawn of Everything, the freedom to reorganise social relations covered in a wide variety of examples, from rotating leaderships to seasonal power shifts and so on. The context of the environments play a large part in how people best decide to organise themselves in certain circumstances. the ability to change how the systems works, together, allows that to happen.
There’s a fair case that this is what a good number of people in the Web3 space would say they are trying to do; reimagine the way the internet works, and ‘corrects the mistakes’ of previous generations.
The stated goals behind a lot of projects are to reimagine and enact different ways of… well everything from land ownership to brewing.
It seems a lot of DAOs (“member-owned communities without centralized leadership”) start off with a broad, expansive purpose, open debate and exploration of ideas in an online space (e.g. a Discord server). But then the end goal is to get to a state where there is action enacted by code, determined by voting using governance tokens, shares or other mechanic. (There’s a good HBR piece on some of the ins and outs of what DAOs can and can’t do).
I tend to struggle with this concept a bit. There’s a trade-off between to ability to discuss and debate together, and then enshrining decisions in code so that the entity keeps doing that thing unless enough people vote for it to stop.
Sure, it’s efficient, and doesn’t require as much organisation as traditional communities. But what happens if enough people don’t turn up to vote? Or a small cadre of people make sure they vote in an organised fashion? Or the DAO converts all the matter in the universe into paperclips when left to its own devices?
Starter Questions: Who decided how this works? Were they always involved? Are their intentions consistent? How’s it going so far?Are we getting what we signed up for? What would make it better? Can we redesign and remake it? What happens if we do?
4. Control by Influence
In Graeber & Wengrow’s work, they define this as “control through individual charisma“, and describe it as usually the most ephemeral of social controls. After the sovereignty of a state is set up (control through violence), and the bureaucracy (control through information) means it is embedded in the everyday existence of all citizens, to door is open for this personal charisma; in short, the democratic process which asks ‘who should we trust with this apparatus?’.
Here though, I’m making a direct link from that ‘personal charisma’ to a more prevalent word used in today’s online communities; Influence. Of course, being ‘an influencer’ was riding high for a while as a very desirable career path for kids, but more recent stories of influencer burnout may temper that a little. More broadly though, I wonder if there are different types of influence we can look at here.
Firstly, influence through expertise; the people creating a new way of doing things (obvious example: Vitalik Buterin), who are arguably afford sovereign status in the worlds they inhabit; they are allowed to break the rules they set, as they transform the system around them striving for new goals. I think there are likely to be identifiable pioneers in all emergent communities like this: who do these ideas start with? Then there’s influence through money; those who’re accelerating new communities through funding in exchange for equity, tokens, and so on. Hello there, VC land. Then (finally for now) there’s influence through celebrity….
This celebrity angle in particular raises a good set of questions that I think can be used for the whole ‘control of influence’ area. It is just as legitimate to ask ‘what does this person know?’ of Michael Owen as it is a VC investor or a crypto-engineer.
Starter Questions: Who is using their influence here?How much do they know? What interests do they have? What’s their track record? Are they an active part of this community? What’s their vision for this community? How realistic is it?
5. Control of Information
The Dawn of Everything has a wide range of examples of civilisations where, at some point or another, the control of sophisticated ways of tabulating and storing information becomes a major force in their development. They run from high priests and their arcane, complex rituals which are vital to this year’s crop, through the scribes and artists encoding information for future records, to the tax-collectors seeking the tribute owed from surrounding lords. Control through bureaucratic means is very much conditional about who knows what, when, and where.
Perhaps the aforementioned Discord server culture surrounding Web3 is a great modern example of what we might consider control through information. If you want to learn more, you must join the server in the first place; read threads and follow previous discussions, start to get a feel for the main folk involved. Information can be controlled through access to spaces, channels, DMs, and so on.
Then you need to acclimatise to certain forms and phrases in the language which (similar to academic work) are used to display knowledge in a space, rather than to aid simplicity for the receiver. Information can be controlled through obfuscation, though, and you need to understand what you don’t understand, and why that might be.
And information is controlled by being part of the right crowd. If you to get a detailed sense of how (VCs in particular) are advancing their interests through insider knowledge, I’d recommend reading The Pivot to Web3 Is Going to Get People Hurt in Vice recently.
But simply speaking, if you know an event (e.g. a particular NFT drop) is happening before everyone else, you’re in a pretty good place.
(NB Given the nature of blockchains, which mean any financial trades are visible forever, and that it appears nearly impossible to delete all your past messages and presence from a Discord server, it might mean there’s a *lot* of potential evidence lying around for prosecutors to pick through some point in the future…)
At heart of this control, you have to recognise that information can serve as the fuel for the belonging people feel when part of a community. By being a part of the collective, and accessing that information, you feel your participation is valuable to you, and valued by others.
But it has to be true for the whole community if it is real, and so the follow questions might help you decide that.
Starter Questions: Are we all party to the same information? Who knows what, and when? Is there an advantage in getting information early? Is there a cost for people being late to the party? Can we reduce any asymmetries of information?
6. Control of System
Finally, I’ve taken Graeber & Wengrow’s Domination through Control of Violence, which refers most of all sovereignty, the power to set the laws of the land (and in certain cases to be above them), and directed it into specific sense of who controls the system.
The two share, at their heart, some notion of property; what here is mine? What are my claims to access and control of what is mine, within a given territory, and what are my legal rights to keep others away from it? And if we all agree on this common understanding, who polices legal understanding for the whole community that this is mine, and I can do whatever is necessary to get you off it?
Some of this manifests itself in strange ways. There’s a strange strain of libertarianism underpinning a lot of the space, it would seem, where the same communities who’re keen to make a clean break from centralised state control when it comes to money, would quote like the help of the law in getting back their stolen NFTs.
But ignoring that ‘state within state’ angle for now, just understanding more about the ‘rules’ as set out and policed within a community becomes importantly whenever you’re joining one.
I touched before on the nature of DAOs, and that central idea of writing into code the way the organisation will work for all its members. The phrase ‘code is law‘ is attributed to Lawrence Lessig’s late-nineties work, and this Forbes piece from John Quinn draws out some key lessons for today. The main thrust for me is this:
“…other than in the simplest of contracts, code cannot necessarily account for every eventuality. Drawdowns on letters of credit, for example, which are supposed to be automatic on presentation, are occasionally enjoined for nonperformance, fraud or on other grounds. It is impossible to anticipate, let alone reduce to code, all scenarios that might unfold. Contracts would have to be hundreds or thousands of pages long to address the nuances of every possible scenario.” – John Quinn, Forbes
Using code to govern organisations internally seems wrought with similar problems; even in the simplest communities, with the most straightforward of aims, how would you enshrine a bit of code that ‘addresses every possible scenario‘?
It feels like, as people wrestle with this very tricky problem, online communities reply on good ol’ fashioned carbon-based bipedal regulators to manage the system. And so having sets of questions to ask about who holds these powers, and what they might use them for, becomes more vital.
An example from this week; crypto-lender Celsius froze withdrawals and transfers in order to “stabilise liquidity“. There’s a metaphorical big red switch they can throw to shut people out of their accounts. And yet… in the statement below, they claim they’re doing this in the interests of ‘their community’.
Now yes, this is more like a bank run than it is anything else, despite the use of the C word (and perhaps ‘investors’ or ‘customers’ is what they really mean). But it gives us a sense of what to look for; who has their hands on the metaphorical big red buttons, and what does it allow them to do?
Starter Questions: Who has admin rights? What do those rights enable them to do? What is the code of conduct? Who wrote it? When was it last updated? What happens if people break it? Who would people appeal to? What legal rights do I have?
What’s next then?
Well, this project started as a scrappy blog post over a week ago, but it’s much better for it. I’m going to test the tool when it comes to looking at various types of community over the summer, and perhaps think of three additional lenses to put over the top, if I was an individual or an organisation:
At what point is this not a community I’d want to be part of?
At what point is this not a community I’d want to create?
At what point is this not really a community at all?
I hope others out there might find some use for it too. If you use it for anything, let me know how you get on, either discreetly or publicly.
This started as a quick blog post a week ago, simply collecting together some field notes and some emergent ideas on how to cast a critical view across the Web3 space. Through the process of writing it up, it has has evolved into a potentially useful thing which I’ve called the Community Power Compass for now.
Rather than just deciding that all communities of a type are the same, maybe tools like this can give people a better nuanced approach when thinking about whether to join new communities, leave ones they are part of, or just observe them from the outside.
What makes communities very different underneath, even if they appear very similar on the surface? And how might having a more nuanced way of describing these differences help people and organisations join, find or create better communities?
This first post below is the context; what’s the background I’ve been working through.
This started as an exploration I first mentioned on Twitter a while back. I was thinking about different ways of expressing what this ‘next generation’ of the web might be by looking at what people imply they want, not just what a certain kind of technology can provide. MTPW > MPTW, etc etc.
To set out my current position; I am yet to be convinced that the monotonous ‘put X on a blockchain‘ refrain of Web3™ is a good idea, but then neither am I convinced that this simplification captures the detail of what every community in the space is proposing.
There are of course plenty of sources you can read or watch on the the dangers and delusions of the space. You could easily spend your days becoming a full-time prophet of doom, and their are more and more folk out there. Indeed, part of the (subsequently useful) delay in publishing this blog post has been the endless source of new articles and examples which appear on a delay basis. Oh, and the latest cryptocurrency crash.
Disclosure time: I have never owned any cryptocurrency, bought tokens to be part of a DAO, or anything similar. Yet I’ve been fascinated by it all for a long time, since watching Dave Birch’s talk at Playful back in 2014.
Why? Firstly, the Web3 space seems inexorably, willingly, deliberately linked with blockchains and cryptocurrencies. It is the ‘financialisation of everything‘, and suddenly all relationships are seen through an economic lens.
Given that’s what I studied back at university – and I would argue continues to furnish me with tools and methods for thinking with – the draw of this space is compelling.
Often though, the stories of Web3 always seems to me be the economic equivalent of someone explaining that gravity works sideways rather than downwards.
That may be because it’s so fundamentally revolutionary that it changes the way everyone thinks about everything for ever. But equally, it may be because everything is not what it seems at all, and what my gut is telling me on a lot of occasions is right. Either which way, I enjoy the challenge of having to think differently about it.
Secondly, it increasingly appears that there are a lot of people are getting caught up in the excitement who can’t afford to be; things I’ve heard anecdotally, being in forums where it’s brought up, reading coverage online, and so on.
The space feels highly predatory as a result, reminiscent of the famous Hunter S. Thompson quote on the TV business. I don’t enjoy watching bad actors take good people for a ride, or complacent actors leading others up the garden path. I clearly do like mixing metaphors, however.
As always though, the people are the interesting bit. There’s lots to learn here about how people feel, what they think, and what they do, whether as individuals or as part of communities.
Generations of the Web
‘Community’ is (once again) the concept du jour for thinking about generations of the web. I wrote a thesis on communities way back when, of course, when the promise of building open, accessible, interoperable communities online still seemed a genuine possibility. Layer the communities onto the economic aspects, and you therefore have catnip for me.
Why are people willing to (once again) entertain a community-based generation of the web? When they look at the web works today, what is letting them down? Where do they see the potential of fixing it this time around? What will stop the same thing happening again? What are they prepared to do about it?
(NB I am assuming that there are more interesting things beyond ‘get-rich-quick‘ or ‘we’re all going to make it‘ going on, because I do try to be optimistic about people generally.)
In reading and researching, it clearly appears there are things that people want which are deeper than financial gain. Nods to the distribution of power, notions of ownership, the dynamics of healthy online communities, and so on.
Much of it is then wrapped up in the philosophy of ‘decentralisation‘, as a rejecting of the centralisation of Web 2.0. “Decentralise, and all will be well.“
I sketched out the below set of quadrants (going back to the Cross-Quadrant Working Group work for inspiration), thinking about centralisation of generations of the web. What do generations of the web present as to the world, and what are they actually?
For many, ‘Web 1’ would have felt centralised, accessed through The Information Superhighway for example (note the definitive article), via whoever your first internet service provider was. Yet in reality, it was decentralised in the delivery, these services simply curating links to pages and resources built and curated by a wide variety of different people and organisations.
Then ‘Web 2.0’ appears, with Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, BeBo, and all the other also-rans. They offer broader access for people to create and share things on the web, but at the cost of… well personal data just for starters (“You Are The Product” etc). From a Read only web, to a Read/Write web… as long as you used the in-house facilities, as it were.
As well as presenting as a centralised world, it really is centralised, and all the power lies at the centre. You can understand why people want to rebel.
Web3 or Web Free?
Now, there’s a notion inside Web3 that declares instead of just Read/Write, this version of the web should be Read/Write/Own. All of your contributions to any platform should be (in some way) owned by you, and even offer you a return (e.g. rewards, a share of revenue, etc). And you can take all of your valuable assets with you from place-to-place, and therefore power is redistributed amongst a broader community of use.
To me though (and I’ll explain more below), it feels like this becomes a way to present an environment as being decentralised, whilst actually what it is doing is making the centralisation more opaque.
Originally I started thinking of this quadrant as The Whaling Grounds, where actors who have a disproportionate interest in a particular thing can make sweeping decisions under the surface of a notionally decentralised world.
Currently, I wonder tying the Web3 world to blockchain and crypto is what fundamentally centralises it, rather than decentralises it. Maybe there’s also a system in the middle, it’s just a matter of trying to find one in which the Whales can’t hide their actions.
Meanwhile, other things which appear more like decentralisation are appearing here and there. For example, there’s the Fediverse, “an ensemble of federated (i.e. interconnected) servers that are used for web publishing (i.e. social networking, microblogging, blogging, or websites) and file hosting, but which, while independently hosted, can communicate with each other.” You run your own version of a platform, host a server, yet still have it connect to others which are operating off the same open principles. You could almost argue it’s an alternative reality Web 2.0 – what we could have had – and there’s some efforts to get there from here.
There are also other aspects of merging trends – no-code platforms and services might be a good example – where there’s more of a direction towards Read/Write/Publish than Read/Write/Own. How do you give people ownership of their own platforms rather than their own content? And make sure that these platforms work together?
From this perspective, you can see how decentralisation has to come hand-in-hand with interoperability. This is the hardest thing to achieve for Web3, as it fights against the financial imperatives of things like VC money fuelling current growth.
As a result, I started wondering about how you might tell whether a community which presents itself as decentralised is actually decentralised. And then, as you do, started a book on ancient civilisations, and some things started falling into place.
The Dawn of… Something
David Graeber & David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is over five hundred pages of anthropology meets archaeology. It explores how a lot of experts over the years have taken for granted that there can only be one natural progression for humans in terms of society, governance and so on. Yet the evidence, as you might expect, points to there being many different systems and social relations tried over time across the world.
Whilst the book is dense and full of lengthy examples, it also contains some basic principles which are really useful to apply in other places you might be thinking about groups of people. Like, for instance, online communities.
First of all, there are the Freedoms which people value, and help them create robust societies; the Freedom to Move Away, the Freedom to Disobey, and the Freedom to Reimagine Society.
Then there are the three elementary forms of Domination which those in positions of power will call on to keep that power; Domination through Control of Violence, Domination through Control of Information, and Domination through Personal Charisma.
These are about two sides of power; freedom and control. Given the underlying philosophies of decentralisation and interoperability within the Web3 space, they feel useful ways to understand some of the complex human dynamics at play.
As an initial experiment, I wrote out a brief passage under each broad area, and started playing with titles a bit to make them more relevant to my uses. Then I started to hone a set of questions under each title to use as an ongoing interrogation device when orientating around new communities, initiatives and more. That’s all below.
Then, having mulled it over a bit more, I turned it into a fleshed out tool, thinking about how those freedoms and controls might play off against each other. It’s not perfect yet, but seems potentially useful.
In Part 2 here, I’ll dig into each segment, and describe how I hope to use it.
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