I miss our multiplicity so much. To be really at home means to be with the people you love. And to know that they are cared for. Shevek gave me a text by Christian Siefkes. It makes you feel a tremendous sense of longing. But hasn’t that always been my driver?
No garden farm and no decenter could exist without a team of people who care about the place and keep it running. These teams find together via self-selection. Everybody decides according to their own preferences, whether, where, and how they engage. These decisions are influenced by hints left by others, pointing to unfinished or desired activities. Hubs and farms collect their open issues in public wish lists. The users of the place, but also everybody else, may decide to start working on some of these tasks. Some do so because they enjoy it, others in order to learn how to do it. Others become active to resolve some fault that affects them, say if a nearby fab hub lacks machines they would like to use or if their garden farm stopped making jam.
Many people start as users of a place and become contributors later. Some contribute for just a few hours, others occasionally from time to time, still others become regular contributors, say because they grow fond of the project, the tasks, or the other people involved. But not only users become contributors. The popular “task-list” software gathers all tasks shared by projects all over the world. It makes it easy to search for activities one is interested in, allowing to filter them by regions, kinds of task, kinds of project, or arbitrary freetext queries.
This decentralized task distribution mechanism is known as “stigmergy,” from the Greek word stigma, meaning “mark” or “hint.” Stigmergy also exists in the animal world. Ants and termites organize themselves in this way. But while insects act instinctively, the stigmergic self-organization of humanity is based on millions of conscious decisions. Everyone takes their own needs, wishes, and skills into account when deciding which hints to leave and which to follow. This causes a distributed prioritization of open tasks: things about that many people care a little, or some people a lot, are handled sooner than things that leave everybody cold. And because people choose for themselves where and how to engage, everybody is motivated and all the manifold talents and skills come to their full potential.
Of course, that’s only true as long as everybody can freely choose their occupations based on their individual preferences and strengths, unconstrained by social expectations or the lack of learning opportunities. In the past, many people believed that women were generally better at some tasks and men at others. Such stereotypes were self-reinforcing since they discouraged women from engaging in “men’s activities,” and vice versa. And also because those who ignored the stereotypes had bigger obstacles to overcome before being taken seriously. Today we take care to nullify such stereotypes if they still occur, allowing everyone to learn about and engage in whatever areas and tasks they choose.
People once seem to have thought that coercion was a necessary element of any society. They apparently believed that otherwise nobody would do things that are useful to others. Coercion was practiced in various forms, most frequently in the form of “money.” Money was similar to the chips we use in some games. But then it was not a game, it was necessary for survival. For most people, working was the only way to get it. Unless you had enough money chips, most or all socially produced wealth was closed off to you. It sounds incredible, but many people even died of hunger just because they lacked money!
Today we no longer worry about people not working unless forced. For most activities, it’s quite easy to find enough volunteers. When that’s not the case, it’s usually for things that not too many people consider important. That tends to happen with vague ideas that don’t inspire people, or with hobby projects pursued by just a handful of people that fail to spread the idea. In such cases, the people who do care need to find a way of managing without much additional support, or just give up. This can be quite annoying if you put a lot of energy into something that doesn’t take off, but it doesn’t cause any serious harm.
If things are important they hardly lack volunteers. It helps that there is so much we can leave to the machines. This trend started earlier, in capitalism. At that time, it was an ambivalent development, since people had to work in order to make money, and if machines took over their work, their access to money was cut off. This problem doesn’t exist any more, hence we automate even more. If there aren’t enough volunteers for a task (something that happened more frequently in the past), a team of automation enablers will usually be around quickly. They’ll explore options for re-organizing the task in such a way that all or parts of it can be handled by computer-controlled machines. Often, it’s enough to eliminate hazardous, boring, smelly or otherwise unpleasant aspects of a task in order to make it sufficiently attractive for volunteers.
Society has also become much more efficient, further reducing the volume of necessary work. In capitalism, everybody’s goal was to get more money, rather than producing the needed things as efficiently as possible. Getting money was a kind of race, you had to outdo others which tried to outdo you. The worse the others did, the better for you. Today we share knowledge, software, and innovations, since this is better for everyone and since others will often contribute further enhancements. Back then, everybody tried to keep their knowledge secret and to prevent others from using it, in order to finish the race before them. That caused an awful lot of additional work and inefficiencies.
Moreover, companies tried to convince people that they really needed the stuff produced by the company, in order to get more money. (Companies were somewhat similar to projects, but organized in a totally different manner.) And when things broke down, or sometimes even earlier, they were often simply discarded and replaced by new ones. Today we prefer modularity: if a part breaks down or no longer fits your needs, you just adapt or replace that specific part.
That work was organized by companies rather than projects must have been another reason why people couldn’t imagine a world without coercion. Companies had leaders who told people what to do, and everybody working there had to follow their orders. This strange arrangement was obviously fatal for motivation. If you were lucky, you might have been able to move from one company to another, but there you would be again in the same situation.
Nowadays, projects strive for “rough consensus and running code,” simply as a consequence of their organizing volunteers. They cannot force anyone to contribute, nor can they bribe people with money. Often there is a maintainer or a team of them – they might have founded the project or were chosen by election or co-option. While they coordinate the whole thing, they always have to make sure that important decisions are accepted by most of the people involved. And that means not just the active contributors, but the users too. Without this rough consensus, no project will get very far because they won’t find enough volunteers. The second goal – produce “running code” – makes it easier to structure the debates. The objective is finding solutions that work well in practice, not just making arbitrary decisions based on individual taste.
Formerly, people also seem to have disliked work because they had too much of it. Apparently they utterly failed at distributing work in a reasonable manner. Some people had no work and hence no money, others had too much work and hence not enough time for everything else. Today, all of us have enough leisure, for dozing, sleeping, playing, reading, making love, doing research, watching movies, going for a swim, sunbathing, or whatever else we fancy. That’s nice, but for most people, it’s not enough. They also want to do something useful for others, at least on some days or a few hours per day. They want to take part in the reproduction of life. They want to do something for others, for the community, just like others are doing so much for them. They want to learn something or do something that is both enjoyable and useful. Or they get involved in producing something they desire – they “scratch an itch,” as Eric Raymond, one of the free-source pioneers, expressed it.
Most successful projects have found ways of making involvement easy. They warmly welcome all newbies and help them when needed. They integrate contributions that make sense and try to help improving those that aren’t quite there yet. That’s why re/production works without requiring coercion. Sometimes there still are problems, of course, but when that happens, we talk about it and try to find ways of dealing with the situation.
When tasks can’t be distributed via stigmergic self-selection alone, many communities and some projects fall back to “white lists.” Anyone can anonymously add a task to these lists, say if it often stays undone because of a lack of volunteers, or if the volunteers working on it are unhappy. This can be a problem since, while nobody is forced to start working on any specific tasks, once you have done so, not everybody finds it easy to give them up later. You might fear to disappoint others or leave a painful gap.
The listed tasks are discussed in weekly or monthly meetings. Tasks can be taken off the list if most people agree that they are no longer problematic. The remaining tasks are then distributed “round robin”: everybody should do some of them from time to time so they won’t cause much trouble to anybody. Often, lots are drawn to assign people to tasks for specific time periods. There are no direct sanctions for refusing to take part in the round-robin distribution, but it almost never happens.
It’s more tricky when unpopular tasks require special skills that not everybody can learn in a short period of time, but that situation is relatively rare. In any case, the general goal is to keep the white lists as short as possible (ideally, are they completely empty, hence “white”), by automating the problematic tasks or by re-organizing them to make them more attractive. Often this works quite well. In the past, people seemed to be much less happy with the things they had to do than we are now. That was probably also caused by them having few choices of what to do, and not much influence on how exactly to do it. We have.
Originally published in German in the collection “Etwas fehlt” – Utopie, Kritik und
Glücksversprechen edited by the jour fixe initiative berlin (edition assemblage, Münster, 2013, pages 255–272).