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December 26, 2007

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Gerry

Couldn't agree more. If this conversation isn't already happening someplace in cyberspace, it should be. If somebody in this circle names a place to go online to start building this vision, just say the word and I'm there.

Time to take the lid off our culturally given ontologies again and try for something that works better. That is after all what was done in the creation of this nation and it's founding documents. The Constitution even gives a procedure for updating it, but I think we had better have all of our active democratic processes and forums up and running before opening up that can of worms. When I first learned about the Constitution as a teenager, that idea of calling a Constitutional Convention and rewriting was an incredible statement of faith in political process. I feared that faith might not be warranted and if a convention were held in my lifetime that we would not end up with something better than what we have now.

Now I an starting to think that we must design and implement something better. It has to make the promise of democracy real not just for the U.S.A., but to become again a beacon of hope in the world.

Phil

We might begin by limiting attendance at the Constitutional Convention to flesh and blood humans, not corporations or those representing corporate collectivities. Those attending should come as citizens. That in itself is a huge boundary condition.

Jeff

I kind of suspect that the interest of non-professional content creators may simply be incompatible with the interests of any for-profit platform or aggregator.

The term 'constitution' worries me, though, because governance is a high-overhead business and, arguably, rarely in the interests of the governed. Maybe what we need is something closer to a boilerplate GPL-style contract that we all, as content contributors, insist upon as a pre-condition to contributing any content to anything.

The problem is, if we are not to pay the piper, then we are tacitly accepting (if not insisting) that the platform provider generate revenues using our content to support the business - at which point we have welcomed the wolf into the barn. (Because lets face it, there is no such thing as a 'double bottom line'.)

Phil

Jeff,

You are yourself engaged in figuring all this out for handmeon. I am sure you have given the various models of sustainability much thought. I would be interested in your reflections. Does it come down to, "Who founds and funds the platform? And how do they get a return on their investment or how are they motivated to make a gift?" The internet backbone itself was built out as "gift" by the Defense Department?

Who owns the content I create is one question, who owns the conversation is another. Omidyar gave us all back our own specific utterances and in the process ruined the conversation.

Who accepts the responsibility to act as steward for the conversational commons, for how long and on what terms? In a small way I am experiencing that at under.wealthbondage.com. I am hosting long dead conversations. For how long? Do I have the legal right to blow it up? The moral right?

Gerry

Is is possible that you need something stronger than the sharing of the collaborative creative production to create a community, hold it together and sustain it? If it isn't a Constitution, then what is it?

I don't really see a big problem here either. We already have vigorous examples of community owned content and systems, take say Wikipedia and the Apache projects as two of many diverse examples. Each can have different definitions of community and processes of governance, but the bottom line is that the cost of the systems and network bandwidth is modest and falling. A vital organization will have other administrative costs that will be of similar scale, so the basic questions of financial viability and stability are the same, and we have this greatly enhanced capacity to communicate, coordinate and collaborate.

Gerry
Those attending should come as citizens. That in itself is a huge boundary condition.

This is the key part, you can leave off the rest if you want. In Open Source projects (Apache cited above is again a good example), corporate participation is usually a very good thing. Sometimes they provide unrestricted sponsorship of the project itself, but even if they just let their people contribute on company time and to accomplish company goals they still have the same relationship to the community, that of user/developer of the software.

As long as we can all participate as citizens, and various procedural elements from masks to secret ballots may be necessary to make that a practical possibility in the face of pressures to hold an official position.

Phil

Again, you get back to ownership and governance. Who can make what decisions? Who has what rights, including rights to intellectual property and cash flows? I don't see how you settle these except by getting people together than agreeing. Either that or a handful of organizers write a unilateral contract or GPL license and it is "take it or leave it." Chaordic Commons might be a model for a constitutional assembly. So might the KINS method aka Tipping Point Network.

Jeff

At Handmeon, we have not sought venture funding precisely because we don't want to see the site turned into a money-making machine. Gobs of rhetoric flow around this issue regularly, including lots of very clever justifications of why venture-funding ultimately works for the best interests of all concerned. (This is not a can of worms that I am interested in opening in public because I don't have anything nice to say on the subject.) So Handmeon is left with a long runway no immediate visible means of support. At some point, I guess, we might ask our users to help out financially in some way, or take a cut of some ancillary business that we deem non-pernicious; but the first order of business is to create something that people use and care about.

We might, in time, create some sort of governance structure to include stakeholders. Whatever 'constitution' you create ultimately favors the interests of some individuals to the detriment of others. The difficulty is in balancing the decision-making power with the contributions, conpetence, and commitment of the participants.

The examples of Wikipedia and Apache are noteworthy because they both involve sharing of control among creators (but not with end-users!). There are various areas in which control can be shared: e.g. content, policy, strategic direction. Content control has been an interesting struggle for Wikipedia, but still I would say that low-level content control poses less of a challenge than other areas. Open source software is particularly susceptible to fission and I think the failure to produce a polished consumer linux distribution is symptomatic of the limits of full stakeholder empowerment.

It may be that different forms of control are appropriate at different stages of organizational development. Most of my experience has been in early-stage entrepreneurial startups and this probably warps my perspective. Maybe a good rule of thumb is that some sort of formal stakeholder participation would be called for once the level of user-contributed content reaches a certain level relative to the contribution of the founding team? I don't know. We certainly would welcome interest in such issues by our users and would be open to trying to put together a policy. We could do that precisely because, for the moment, we are a benevolent dictatorship.

Democracies sometimes founder, I think, because there is a threshold of civic indifference beyond which which democratic participation becomes counter-productive. Fortunately for the stability of democratic systems, this often drives the whole nation into such dire straits that the electorate wakes up and increases its participation enough to push things back to the point that they can slip back into their civic somnolence. It is a tough problem, but I am pretty sure that the solution is NOT the pollsters' shoot-from-the-hip direct democracy.

Phil

Thanks, Jeff. Direct democracy or plebescite may not be a workable answer. How about some system of representation, more like a republic? Handmeon seems a pretty benign operation. But assume it someday has several hundred thousand users who have all kinds of gift relationships out and around. Handmeon then begins to monetize them, with ads or whatever. Then data is mined. Then the site is sold to Rupert Murdoch and bots crawl the site constantly seeking a marketing edge. At what point do users feel that they have been had? Should they not have had some kind of constitution or representation or "say" in the decisions that are made by the founder/funders since without the users there is nothing much to sell out?

Maureen

"Noocracy" is an enticing concept. Especially for the people who have the where-with-all to get people to lend them their ears. Thanks to the advent of the blog, articulate, self-assured, word slingers -- like the group who is commenting here-- can muster people's attention. It's important to remember, however, that it is capital (i.e. capital, cultural and otherwise) which greases the wheels of all "-acies" (noocracy, democracy, oligarchy, aristrocracy... alike) by buying the dominant group the initial audience.

How does the outsider get a hearing? What for instance does the new non-profit do to gain the minds, hearts and cash of others so as to do if they don't have the capital? In particular, what does s/he do if the movement ultimately poses a threat to the existing world order?

This is not just a rhetorical question. I've founded a non-profit whose mission is to bring technical assistance and "best practices" to museums around the world. Our partner museums feature some of the poorest and most remote in the world. We do this work in part by borrowing resources (mostly "experts") from the wealthy part of the museum world (1%) and giving them to the needy (the remaining 99%). After 9 months of trials, we've got an effective product, positive outcomes, dozens of museums on various continents clamoring for our assistance and dozens of museum experts willing to participate. What we don't have, however, is money.

And here's the problem. The public is uninspired by museum development. When you can feed the hungry or nurse the sick, why give money for a community-based museum in Mpophomeni, South Africa or traveling Mayan textile exhibit in Chiapas, Mexico? And foundations are not enough moved by our story to award us a grant, at least not the foundations we have already approached. (Many seem to be on other routes to social good,which are remarkably like each others'.)

Furthermore, the story we tell is potentially off-putting to a category of potential donors, namely the art collector and museum patron. Since we favor the tearing down of the thick walls between the haves and have-nots of the museum world and the creation of numerous, small, decentralized community-based museums, our values are at odds with this group of potential donors.

The same could be said of potential corporate sponsors. Since we work in places that were exploited (or continue to be exploited) in part by greedy corporations, we are very slow to find compatible donors in this sector.

Laughable as it may seem for a broke non-profit to be thinking this way, we can only imagine accepting support from an organization or person whose values we endorse. In fact, I'd rather the organization die than sell out.

So the question arises: short of waking up one morning as wealthy as George Soros or charismatic as Christ, how is it possible to sell a new, somewhat controversial idea without selling your soul? Setting aside the question of stretching one's soul (albeit mine could use some stretching beyond its puritanical limits), how does one get heard if one isn't already recognized as worth being listened to and isn't of the Napoleonic self-crowning bent?

Phil

With your permission, Maureen, would like to repost your comment on the main page where more people might see it.

Phil

Maureen, don't underestimate the moral force of your own eloquence. I don't often find myself "decked," but I am lying here minutes later watching the lights twinkling and still wondering what or who hit me. Welcome to the noocracy.

Jeff

We've seen this sort of thing with newspapers (whose stakeholders include the reporters and the readers, among others.) _Le monde diplomatique_ has tried floating a special class of readership stock that is voted by editorial management (or something.) It strikes me as a structurally unstable situation.

My feeling is that basic problem is with ownership, not governance. Any company capable of generating significant revenue that is own by capitalists will be managed to maximize that revenue and channel it to the owners. A 'constitution' won't prove to be much of an obstacle if the revenue opportunities are sufficiently enticing.

What we need is an example of a successful site that 'goes public' in the sense of becoming a 501(c)(3) rather than an IPO. That can't happen unless the company is closely held by individuals willing to make such a contribution.

I remember chatting with the folks at Ben and Jerry's many years ago, and they remarked that it was all over the moment that they gave stock options to their employees, because the employees, in their capacity as shareholders, wanted them to maximize profits - and the board had a fiduciary responsibility to do so. This is why the notion of a 'double bottom line' doesn't make sense.

Maureen

Sure, Phil, repost away. Thanks for the reassurance.

Phil

Interesting, Jeff. Mutual insurance companies are an interesting hybrid model. They are owned by the policyholders, have no public stock, and are run by professional managers. No governance role goes to policyholders, but management is free of the Wall Street driven need to profit maximize. A co-op is another structure. Another might be a corporation owned by a foundation managed by trustees drawn from stakeholders.

Phil

Maureen,

Done. Checked your bio. Dartmouth? My word, and you call me a word slinger? Williams grad can't compete.

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