Distributed Curation: the commons handling complexity

This post was first published on 2018-07-02 on the P2P Foundation blog

A story about a wiki

Let me open by saying this is only a sketch – Michel Bauwens would probably want to elaborate, but I would like to mention only the very barest details here. Back around 2006, Michel started putting his notes about Peer-to-Peer and related ideas on the P2P Foundation wiki, and opened it up to trusted others to contribute as well. Naturally, after more than 12 years of committed input, there are thousands of pages, which have received millions of page views. Like many wikis, this can be seen as an information commons.

Can one person maintain, as well as continue contributing to, such a growing resource? At some point, any such venture can become a full time occupation, and at a later point, simply unfeasible for one person alone. Thus, from time to time, Michel has invited others to help organise and contribute to the pages, and the wiki as a whole. Leaving out personal details, this has not all been sweetness and light. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of wishing to impose one's own personal structure, one's own worldview, on any resource of which one shares control.

Beyond the wiki pages themselves, the wiki (running on software similar to Wikipedia) pages can be given categories, and over the years Michel has written guide pages for many of these categories.

A story about community resources

Again, I will sketch out only the barest details, taken directly from life. The houses in the cohousing community that I live in are marvellously well-insulated, but small, and with little storage space: no lofts, garages or garden sheds. Coming from larger homes in an individualistic society, many of us bring literal baggage along with the habit of keeping collections of things that might be useful some time. The community does share guest rooms, a large dining and living space, a garden tool store, etc., so there are several areas where we don't need to keep our own stuff.

But what about stuff like: books; envelopes; bags; fabrics and materials; glass jars; plastic containers; DIY tools and materials; boxes; camping equipment or any of the many things other people keep in their lofts, garages or garden sheds? We are committed to a low-energy future, where reuse and re-purposing are valued. But there is not enough space for us to keep more than a fraction of what we could potentially reuse. Can we make more of a material commons around these day-to-day resources, even if they look unimportant politically?

How are wikis like stuff we keep? Where are the commons here?

The truth is, in any highly complex system, each of us has at best only a partial and personal understanding of that complexity. We may be experts in our own field (however small) but know little of other people's fields, and have only a vague overview. Or we may be the people with an overview of everything, but the more we devote ourselves to holding the overview in mind, the less mental space we have for all the details. So, are commons simple or complex? While each part of a commons may be simple enough to grasp, my guess is that, when taken together, the sum total of our potential commons is indeed highly complex, and far beyond the scope of what any one person can fully comprehend.

The lack of space in our homes simply serves to highlight the fact that in any case, most of us don't have the time or energy to keep a well organised collection of jars, bottles, tools, equipment, and potentially reusable resources of all kinds. When we delve into the richness of a wiki like the P2P Foundation's, the links in the chain rapidly lead us to areas where we know very little. That's why it is useful! We gather and store information, as we do physical materials, not knowing when something might be useful. But can we find it (the material resource, the information) when we want to?

My proposition is that, first, we grasp that essential truth that this same pattern is increasingly common in our complex world. And, second, we recognise that we can do something very constructive about it. But it needs coordination, trust, and, maybe, something like a ‘commons’ mindset.

The sad version of the ending

Returning to our stories, what might happen next? It's easy to imagine awkward, frustrating futures. The information we stored is no longer up to date. The links lead to 404 pages. The summaries, useful in their time, omit last year's game-changing developments. Visitors don't find them useful, and so they are not motivated to join in the curation. Our information commons initiative, once so promising and useful, gradually loses its value, and sooner or later it is effectively abandoned. We turn back to the monetised sources of information that are controlled by global capital.

We overfill our small homes with stuff that might come in handy one day. But because we don't really have the proper space to organise the stuff, when we want something we can't find it anyway. And we have less room in our heads, as well as our houses, trying to keep track of all the stuff. No one else can help us quickly, because they all suffer from the same difficulties. And no one has thought to keep those rare whatever-they-are-called things.

Alternatively, the space we use collectively to store our stuff gets fuller and fuller, and everything is harder to find. No one knows where everything is. People start moving other people's stuff just to help them organise some other stuff. Either way, we don't find what we're looking for. So we go and order a new one. More consumption of energy, more resource depletion, worse environment, more climate change …

Articulating the commons of information and physical materials

So, let's try for more positive narratives.

Anyone who turns up to use our information commons resource is invited to get to know someone here already. Soon we have an idea of what particular knowledge our newcomer has, in which areas. Through personal contact and discussion, and seeing some reliable behaviour, trust develops. We give them the task of revising the most out-of-date resource that is within their area of competence, interest, energy or enthusiasm. They make a good job of it. They get appreciative feedback, which motivates them to take on more, looking after a whole category. The resource, the commons, grows in real value, and more people come. ‘They’ become one of us. Repeat.

My neighbours and I get together to talk over our resources, and soon every kind of stuff has one or two people who volunteer to look after that kind of stuff. Now that I can trustingly pass on my unused books, my DIY materials, my plastic bottles and containers, and all the other ‘junk’ I have accumulated, I have enough space for a really well-organised collection of glass jars. Anyone with spare glass jars gives them to me. I know which ones there is demand for, and I pass the others on for recycling. When anyone has a sudden urge to make jam, I have plenty of jars ready for the occasion. I even keep a few unusual ones just in case, because I have the space. Every now and then, someone is really astonished that just what they need is there!

Let me, finally, try to describe the common pattern here, and contrast it with other possible patterns.

It's different from having one big heap of resources which is everyone's responsibility equally. No one knows which resources or areas they should take responsibility for, and there is anxiety about entrusting other people to look after other areas, because no one is clear how much attention is being given to what, and how much energy is being wasted looking over other people's shoulders.

It's different from a hierarchical control structure, because the people at the ‘top’ are less likely to have the on-the-ground feedback to know what a manageable, coherent collection is. Yes, perhaps it is possible to emulate a good commons with an enlightened hierarchical structure, but how do you know that some agent of global capital isn't going to come right in and completely change the way things are done, imposing a confusing, alien world view, and promptly syphoning off the surplus value?

The common pattern – the pattern I am suggesting for complex commons – could be called “distributed curation”, and the vision is of a commons governed by consensus, and maintained through a culture that promotes the development of trust, along with the development of people to be worthy of that trust. It relies on personal knowledge and trust between people curating neighbouring areas, so that they can gracefully shift their mutual boundaries when times change, or allow a new area to grow between them. It relies on the natural, spontaneous differences in people's interests, as well as the motivation for people to take on responsibility for deepening their own areas of knowledge within a community context, when trusted, encouraged, and given positive feedback and support by the community; and when they see the natural feedback of their actions benefiting other people.

I'm left with the question, how do we get there? My answers are few, and need much elaboration. Yes, we need to get to know each other, but how can we arrange to introduce people who will enjoy getting to know each other? Yes, we need to build up trust, but what kinds of activities can we do so that trust is built most reliably? Yes, we need to identify and negotiate people's different patches of service and responsibility, but just how can we do that? Yes, we need to inspire people with a vision of distributed curation, but what language, and which media, are going to communicate that vision effectively?

Some discussion of this post took place on the Commons Transition Loomio Group

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