Collaborative technology

and its surprising connection with collaborative life more generally

Collaborative technology has two sides that I recognise: first, the side of providing the technology that makes collaboration easier; and second, fitting the technology to the human purpose. As I said during the Collaborative Technology Alliance (CTA) call this evening (well actually wrote in the chat, as it was the end of the meeting), “all the technology affects how people find it easy to interact, and it's how people relate together that really matters”.

This CTA group is very congenial. It has a bunch of people who are completely at home talking about, and recognise the importance of, interoperability, and the ontologies that underlie that; while at the same time we all share a similar set of values – one way or the other, using technology to make the world a better place.

It is still only natural that when people see a need, and see an opportunity to meet that need, they go right ahead and build something that they see as filling that need, particularly if they can make money doing that. Today we heard about a couple of different forums/platforms, including Hylo, whose people are leading this round of the CTA. It had a previous incarnation a few years ago, and I was a participant then as well. It has been dormant in the meanwhile.

I say it is natural, so it really should not surprise me that some people find it hard, when they have a good idea, to stop, look around, ask themselves who else is doing this, and look for some kind of interoperability standard that could enable collaboration between existing platforms and any new ones that are to be built. And particularly if they are building open source software, as many are. Is my surprise just because I've worked in technical interoperability on and off for nearly 20 years now? Clearly, some others in the CTA group also have a long history in related areas, and that's why I find the CTA so congenial.

Maybe it's down to personality type? I've read something like that in various places. There are the people who see the drawbacks of unrestricted freedom, and want order; and those who want freedom, even at the expense of order. But if so, I find that strange, because in other ways I'm one of those people who feel easily trapped, and at a psychological level I need to maintain freedom. Why do I go for freedom in aspects of personal life, but order when it comes to interoperability?

To me, freedom, at least in the world of software, breeds competition, and that competitive spirit taken to an extreme means that systems cannot work together, that information on one system cannot be transferred, because, the thinking goes, if one system allows its information to be transferred freely, then the moment a better system comes along, all their market share will disappear, and the product will die.

In couple relationships, the general assumptions in our society seem to be similar. Freedom breeds competition, and when a new, more attractive option comes along, … well you get the idea.

Is there a deeper consistency in my attitudes, then? Open source: yes. Open information, honesty: yes. Not compulsory conformity, but open standards which people generally adhere to, because it is in the collective interest to do so, and therefore probably in their enlightened self-interest.

It's a short step from here to commons thinking. Instead of competing to see how much of the common resource we can enclose for our own personal use, we recognise that for everyone to thrive we need to work together, and that needs agreements about our standards of behaviour. People who break the agreements are brought back into line, ideally not by an external legal authority, but by collective corrective action.

But I have strayed from my technical theme … back with the CTA, the alliance that I would like to set up is of a few people who want to draft the common agreements for how decentralised or distributed wikis can be used effectively together. For my purposes, this means combining domains of knowledge together into larger knowledge commons where the seams between the domains, if not invisible, at least do not stand in the way. This doesn't seem to be happening at present. Maybe, there's so much development going on for forum-like platforms, people just haven't got around to the topic of wikis.

I'm left with the question, in both the technical and the non-technical cases, what should those agreements be, and how best can we arrive at them, to further the values of the common good?

Topics: Commons and collaboration; Interoperability

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