Archive for the ‘community’ Category
Curious about where to get free and open source software? Try FossHub. It’s a good site, a fine project, and does what SourceForge and other forges have long done, only in a slightly different way. FossHub recognises that sometimes we just want commodities, not communities. But that sometimes, too, we also want something more than the isolated commodity. We also want the community, and to be part of the group making—and sustaining—the product we like.
From “Tokyo Tom” of The Collaborative Center Community Facebook page, http://goo.gl/Z3yjuC, notice of this special issue. Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics shortly before her death last year. The Ostroms’ work addressed the problems of community and collaboration. She is famous for many things but among them is her redemption of the commons from its supposed tragic demise.
How useful is her work for us in community development and management, especially for productive, open source communities? The answer depends on what one wants. To justify certain sorts of efforts (eg, those that relate to getting funding for some projects from constitutionally doubtful agencies) she is as useful as any authority would be. But she is also useful, or at least her work is, when backing up arguments in favor of collaboration.
But for most who would actually set up collaborative groups, they won’t (and don’t) care about the theory, good or bad. They care about the history and, even better, programmatic “case studies” that spell out (or at least strongly suggest) what to do and how. Proof–validity of action and praxis–counts infinitely over theory.
Put another way, you won’t be able to persuade anyone about how to set up a commons-based peer network only by using Ostrom, or I doubt it. You will persuade by using instances from Martin Fowler, say, or Benkler; or from practitioners. And at a guess, the practitioner is more interested in what he or she knows than in a theory supporting what she doesn’t; and if she is interested in theorizing, she will likely stay within the obvious authorities and case studies, as these are what others in her field know and can accept as such, even though they may disagree with them.
Were she to refer to Ostrom, she’d likely not lose credibility. It just wouldn’t go very far. (In contrast, I suspect she’d lose credibility in her business-oriented field if she referred to Jean-Luc Nancy, though Girard might be okay, as Peter Thiel, I believe–though it could be Musk–is a big fan.)
But I find it a little sad that one of the most interesting thinkers on the problems (and how to solve them) of community and collaboration is just not attended to in ways that could be useful, if not prescriptively, then at least descriptively.
As Conway states in his retrospective summary:
To save you the trouble of wading through 45 paragraphs to find the thesis, I’ll give an informal version of it to you now: Any organization that designs a system (defined more broadly here than just information systems) will inevitably produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure. This turns out to be a principle with much broader utility than in software engineering, where references to it usually occur. I invite you to read the paper, then look around to find applications. My current favorite is the complex of social issues encompassing poverty in America: access to labor markets, housing, education, and health care. After reading the paper, think about how the structures of our various governments affect their approaches to this system.
Does this principle also work inversely? In organising productive communities, especially those working on sourcecode, my working thesis has long been that the architecture of the code informs the architecture of the community. “Monolithic” architectures (which some would just say is another term for, “too big”) tend to processes that more modular ones would find at best hierarchical and probably unacceptable. And we all know how very hard it is to change a system of power, especially one that has operated more or less well enough for years, to something that implicitly limits the power of those who had it before.
Conway’s very famous paper is here.
News of Rhizomatica’s work in at least one small town in Mexico came via a front-page feature in Mexico’s La Jornada. Rhizomatica’s effort is not unique; there are others working around the world seeking to make the vast number of regular phones (as opposed to smartphones: not connected to the Internet) more useful and less simply vehicles for buying yet more powerful (and probably useless) smartphones. The problems that most of the world faces when it comes to mobile (or any) telephony starts with the initial device cost but immediately encounters everything having to do with using the thing, as well as keeping it charged. And then there’s the problem of accessing the Internet usefully. Individual approaches, and approaches that promote a proprietary individualism, I tend to find short sighted, and I think experience has shown me right. Rhizomatica’s approach is not like that, nor are many of the others now operating in, for instance, Africa. Rhizomatica explicitly seeks to act as a bridge using open source technologies so that the other half of the world can have mobile telephony and even, perhaps, the Web. But these efforts, however, modestly successful, escape much news because they are not marketed by well-known multinationals; they are often spearheaded by enterprising communities and groups outside of the common business narratives. As they put it on their About page:
Our mission is to increase access to mobile telecommunications to the over 2 billion people without affordable coverage and the 700 million with none at all.
Professionally, I help organizations with building communities to make things, usually software. But in many places, and that includes the most developed nations, the right kind of developer and company which might employ her may be missing or at least not present enough. So developing a community entails working with education institutions, which is to say, national and subnational government. And it also entails helping small businesses understand the market that is being created and how become part of the emerging ecosystem that includes that market but also other externalities.
I’m thus always interested in learning how community, big, with diverse populations, each with its own notions of identity, yet (more or less) agreeing to national boundaries and expectations, comes into being. (The game model of community as an economic state is equally interesting, though for different reasons. Still, I’ve been exploring ways in which one might model various commons-based peer set ups as a practical tool.)
South Sudan, born as a nation not even two years ago and proving, by the remarkable spirit of its people, an indomitable courage and pride, is fascinating. The country faces harsh challenges. Yet, as the article that prompts my entry here shows, it seems nevertheless to be progressively making itself as a modern nation.
What tactics are being used? Are they working? And if not, why not? And what other techniques and strategies be used? (The Guardian, btw, has a good series of articles on South Sudan.)
And would it make sense to promote technologies that would link students and education institutions to the Web? If so, I’d suggest P2P tools and SMS innovators like Telerivet. But the issue here would not be advancing a particular sort of technology or learning or awareness–that would be even more arrogant than I’m used to being–but working within the existing and emerging structures.
I’ve been playing around with Miro, one of the very few open source apps listed on Apple’s App Store and an excellent player of audio/visual media. But Miro’s mother group, Participatory Culture Foundation, also makes Amara, as well as other tools that expand the usable effect of the Internet, including crowdsourced material (which is what makes the Internet other than an “official” library).
PCF’s goals are ambitious and realizable. The app itself I use (or am anyway experimenting with), Miro, has some bugs, such as minuscule fonts (and these are dimensions seem opaque to alter), as well as other UI shortcomings. There’s too much going on, for instance, and most of it is not interesting, in that it is not actually related to the task at hand, e.g., listening or watching or playing games. As well, and more up my alley, though Miro is open source and the project itself is not business nor ad shy, it’s still oddly difficult to work directly with the code. It’s by no means impossible–I can download the source, via Git–but there seems to be little in the way of inviting contributors to, well, contribute.
There are some banners proclaiming it’s openness and nonprofitness and *virtue*, but why not have more direct links to filing bugs? To fixing them? To making extensions?
I’m not really faulting the project. It’s done wonders and is great and the app is superb. Congratulations. But their community outreach, and I mean that community that can produce, as well as consume, seems lacking in important ways. And the evident desire to control the course of development seems, to me, too weighty.
I can see the point of focus and indeed I’d be appalled if there were not the sort of focus that pitilessly ignores all the other really desirable things to do in the act of doing what what is needed. I think the translation platform of Amara is really, in fact, groundbreaking, in that it provides precisely the tool needed to use the vast wealth of informational resources the Web has made available.
But this magnitude of ambition demands an equivalent, if not greater, community play.
(For comparison: look at the way that Kaltura has managed its business. Not quite the same, but an interesting correlate.)
STEPHEN MARGLIN, the author of the 2008 book, The Dismal Science, which interrogates the foundations and logic of economic thought, makes a really interesting argument here that any community strategist or manager would find a compelling read.
It’s perhaps a measure of my ignorance that it seems to me that the great Paul Feyerabend is not cited more in the fields of open whatever. His central argument, on behalf of a radical pragmatism in science as well as everything else having to do with obtaining knowledge and information (usable or not; and post-Kant, what is not usable, in the end?), is relevant as few other things are to open access, open knowledge, open source. In practical terms, it means that one puts outcomes over prescribed methods. It does not mean that one must abandon a consciousness of method; indeed, it argues the contrary, for a relentless inquiry into what one is doing and if there is another way of doing it. I think that’s what Feyerabend meant by scientific pluralism.
How do we apply this insight to open source production? Productive open-source communities resist are resistant to fixed methodologies. They require agility and flexibility on the part of the manager, community members, sponsoring entities. I don’t mean by this that obvious protocols of behaviour, such as not being rude on lists, ought not to obtain. But I do mean that the methods of production, the tests of product quality, of merit, are necessarily flexible enough to accommodate the divergences of style and character found in larger projects. Yet, clearly, for there to be communication of any sort, there must be agreed-upon standards–conventions of identity–that allow for difference of implementation and use without mutual incomprehensibility.
This coupling of the anarchic with the conventional makes open source production management an art form: something virtually impossible to codify (at least not without losing its dynamic essence) yet utterly recognizable as producing a valuable object others not engaged in the community can use.
The Star is a small paper for a big town and its world section usually taken from the wires. But for that very reason, the article cited gives a fascinating peek into the logic of democracy and its tension with demagoguery (i.e., charismatic leadership leading to political unaccountability) and its balance against bureaucratic consensus (is this the same as the old Soviet Politburo, as was once the case?).
Put it this way: Supposedly democratic states resist the volatility of mob rule by rule of institutions that are by and large accountable to those giving them the power to govern, though this is not actually a necessity. But the effect is social predictability and also, not incidentally, economic stability and, given a diverse commercial environment, growth. But not all regimes articulating social and economic stability are the same, just as not all accounts of “the people” are identical. One, say, can be thought of as the grouping of individuals, rational or not, and grouped as a representable community, the threat of losing individual identity within the community is always present. (From schooling to voting, from birth to death, the individual is made as the natural figure of value, and reminded of that by the incessant claims and lures of commodity culture.)
But an other mechanism of identity can be said to start from the other direction, from the idea of community, with the individual as the sign of that community’s dissolution, and not its embodied atom of value.