Thu 10 May 2018 7:45AM

Representations of commons organisation

M mike_hales Public Seen by 148

Turnout was small in the poll on Representations of commons organisation - 3 persons. But here's a thread anyway. I invite discussion of: ways of conceptualising commons organisation, forms of presentation of concepts (including diagrams and schemas as well as bullet-lists, essays and books) , and technologies for sharing, evolving and mobilising representations (Loomio, wiki, etc). Yes, I include the notorious pattern language! - where the model is a cute and challenging hybrid presentation of words and schematics, underpinned with powerful and practically-rooted but complex (even poetic) concepts . . . presented through a clunky old technology (?), the 200-page hard-copy book.

This is a L A R G E canvas. So I'm thinking about scope just now and expect to revise this context statement in due course - or maybe, split the thread. Please comment if you have thoughts on making the scope of the discussion manageable (by subdividing it? by ditching parts of it?), or pointers to locations where some of this ground has inevitably been turned over before.

For example, please make links to explorations of 'how to organise/produce a commons of kind 'x'. I don't mean abstract principles (eg Marjorie Kelly's 5 x 2 'patterns' of generative/extractive business conduct, which are very broad), I mean concrete, contextualised practices. I propose that 'organisation' in the title of this thread should be seen as activity-verb, rather than structure-noun. Although . . . maybe you feel that structure-pictures are essential tools? Has anyone ever seen a diagram of Dmytri Kleiner's venture commune?

Perhaps this thread might lead towards a library (or map) of links - Whole Earth Catalogue-wise - as distinct from a deep in-thread discussion of representations/conceptualisations, a bible?


mike_hales Sun 13 May 2018 7:56AM

I note the thread on P2P media that @strypey started here, which obviously runs parallel to the discussion I'm inviting here. I guess I see that thread as oriented to networks, networking platforms and the governance of said platforms? A central concern. Whereas, in this thread here, I'm concerned with a specific kind of media content that might travel those networks.


mike_hales Sun 13 May 2018 8:04AM

Just to get started at the easy end . . . would anyone like to share diagrams or visual schemas of forms of commons organisation?


mike_hales Sun 13 May 2018 8:27AM

Ignoring my own suggestion above to avoid structure diagrams , , , I attach a Venn diagram which is a problem rather than a solution. It's a sketch of sectors of the economy which locates 'the social economy' in relation to other coexisting modes. The schema is from an argument on 'the new social economy' by economist/social entrepreneur Robin Murray in a 2009 pamphlet Danger and opportunity - Crisis and the new social economy.

The area that he identifies as the grant economy (aka the voluntary sector) seems to be the only place in this map where commons can be located - and this obviously isn't right. But I'm not at all sure how to redraw this figure so that the commons-based economy does figure with appropriate prominence. Obviously the concepts here need some refining, and all of the 'economies' in the map are in fact a mixed bag (the State for example, is lots of different bits of the economy, doing different things). There are many different modes of commons economy too.

Whatever - does anyone have a suggestion how to redraw this diagram in a way that appropriately locates common-oriented economic activity? Might this be a well-formed conceptual tool, or is it just a bit of propaganda material? The aim of Murray's pamphlet is certainly to be conceptually rigorous. But he hasn't put P2P/commons production on this map, as 'a sector'.


Simon Grant Sun 13 May 2018 8:28AM

Hi Mike @mikeh8 as one of the three :nerd: my sense is that the best start would be to have extended one-to-one talks, and summarise points that come up here in the thread.

Personally, I'd like to know more about where you're coming from and what you would like to see us do, and (in a sense) why. I share a genuine interest in issues around representation -- to me it's applied philosophy. As philosophy, one major aim would be to help everyone think more clearly around a topic, which in turn means keeping in touch with what one could call "common philosophy": philosophy by commoners rather than about the commons -- though that too can be useful and interesting.

So, yes, while it might well turn out to be interesting to share diagrams or schemas, I'd like to talk more generally first.


Simon Grant Sun 13 May 2018 8:35AM

A parallel point: one thing that I do find really helpful is to agree on what kind of diagramming conventions are helpful between us, even before considering what kind of diagrams are best to communicate with a wider audience. One background I have is systems analysis and design, and I'm very happy to use concept maps, similar to entity-relationship type diagrams, (as in Cmaptools) and also data flow diagrams, if used carefully. I don't often find diagrams like the social economy one you give helpful, simply because there is nothing explaining what the lines joining the blobs represent. By default, they seem to mean "is connected or related in some way to", which to me is next to useless until supplemented by a clearer explanation.

But let me look at the Murray paper first, as maybe he gives the kind of meaning I am looking for.


mike_hales Sun 13 May 2018 9:17AM

Yes there's a distinction here, between diagramming methods that are sharp analytical tools with well defined symbolism and precisely defined content (entity-relationship diagrams, etc) and diagrams like I posted (a Venn diagram - a blob diagram) which represent relationships between categories (in strict mathematical use, between sets). The latter diagram, in its original context, is a visual aid attached to a verbal presentation, naming the main areas of reality that the argument is concerned with. I find such aids helpful as resources for talking-around within a conversation (as Murray does in his article) even though they don't do any very precise analytical work. In the article Murray does discuss the content of some links, but in fact this content is very diverse, and the sketch (and the longer verbal argument) is really just a prompt to do much more in-depth analysis. The diagram and the article are work in progress.

Other kinds of schema are used to represent organisations - I don't just mean conventional tree diagrams representing hierarchies. For example, as I mentioned in the thread context - I really would like to see a visual representation of the entities that make up Dmytri Kleiner's venture commons. I have a sense that there may just be three 'blobs' in it. But it would be good to be clear about this, and I would have found it helpful if Kleiner had in fact drawn a picture instead of staying entirely in words. A blob diagram would be an easy thing to carry about in the head, and to use for talking-around with others when it comes to understanding and agreeing what kinds of relationships and entities and distinctions and roles are involved in making a commons work. A simple blob diagram would by no means be an entity-relationship diagram, but could do a lot of useful work in supporting quite serious conversations and negotiations? In the hands of a rigorous user, the vagueness of the picture, in a sense, is what prompts the careful discussion, so that - as you wrote - it eventually becomes 'supplemented by a clearer explanation'.

Perhaps @asimong I'm more open to much looser forms of representation than you would want to work with? I'm broadly thinking of a conversational context, while maybe you're visualising a quite refined design context? Even in a design context, however, I have a hunch that a highly interpretative (verging on poetic) approach to representation - pattern language - is needed for the very rich things (communities, working lives, real economies, outcomes of labour, relationships with nature) that we would like to develop on the ground? Different modes of rigour are attached to the different forms of representation, and all (?) modes are valuable and necessary, as adjuncts to the practice? Seems to me, they all do different kinds of work, and we're not doing detail-design all the time?


Danyl Strype Sun 13 May 2018 2:18PM

I think I'm starting to get my head around the purpose of this thread. What we're talking about here is how to visually represent 'invisible structures' (as we call them in permaculture); relationships, organisations, networks, and so on, that allow for activities not supported by purely ad-hoc interactions. Is that right?

I'm much more of a aural learner/ communicator than a visual-spatial one. If you look at the Disintermedia blog and wiki, it's pretty much all walls of text, because those words paint all the pictures I need. But I get that this isn't true for everyone, and I'm learning to make more use of graphs, memes, and other illustrations that bring visual interest to my material. In fact, I'd really like to get a graphics person involved in Disintermedia to help me with this, but I digress.

Looking at the four domains in Murray's diagram, I actually see four different kind of commons governance.
* a state, especially when functioning as a 'partner state' (in P2PF/ CT parlance), can be seen as the site of governance for what we might call "national commons" or, as I prefer to call them, "public commons"; everything from national parks and electro-magnetic spectrum, to public health and education systems.
* a household is pretty obviously a (set of) commons governed at the level of the family or shared house (a "flat" in kiwi slang or even a squat); common kitchen, bathroom, living areas, perhaps outdoor recreation areas and gardens, sometimes a shared food supply, or even shared vehicles, and often a shared set of rules around cleaning and maintenance of those common facilities. Other commons exist as networks of households, such as the simple food coops where multiple households combine their purchases into a single, regular order from a bulk supplier, or babysitting clubs, and roster systems where groups of parents take turns driving kids to school or to sports events.
* a market can itself be a commons that supports win-win cooperation between competing businesses. The obvious model is the Farmers Market.
* grants tend to be given to people working in large, long-life entities like Foundations (in US legal jargon) and Trusts (in the UK and Commonwealth countries). These entities are (sets of) commons, that provide continuity, institutional memory, and financial services like receiving, dispersing, and reporting on grants.

Free code software is a pretty good example of a (set of) commons that straddles both the market and the grant economy. There are many examples of Foundations and Trusts that hold copyright over free code on behalf of consortia of businesses (eg the Liux Foundation and Ubuntu Foundation). Many commercial business produce free code (including Loomio), and also many free code projects receive grant funding. Although in most cases I'm aware of, the successful free code projects are the ones that are either started by a business that has a revenue model with legs (eg MySQL, Loomio), or have a cluster of businesses develop around them offering support services etc (eg Linux kernel, Koha). Most of the ones funded entirely by grants tend to break down in developer acrimony (eg Chandler) or just fizzle out when the funding runs out (eg Democracy Player/ Miro). My suspicion is that grants are like the software development equivalent of superphosphate fertilizer; they produce spurts of unsustainable growth, while starving the underlying ecosystem of the oxygen and space they need to create soil health and sustainable growth.

There's one domain that's completely missing from Murray's diagram though, and that's the volunteer economy, which is where the majority of my work takes place. Volunteers in community projects are, by definition, working outside the household economy, but also, by definition, not dependent on salaries covered by grants, and their participation is neither driven by the market nor funded or commanded by the state. This is, I believe, the other leg of the stool that makes for sustainable free code software projects, along with markets, and grants (when used to cover the costs of governance and coordination rather than development itself).


mike_hales Sun 13 May 2018 5:52PM

Going along for a moment with your digressing @strypey , yes, different people are reached by different modes of representation. I happen to perceive and to work with much stuff - even the most abstract conceptual stuff - in a kind of space which is like an extended body language, ‘moving’ around what is known, journeying through ‘landscapes’ (and telling travelogues), visiting ‘locations’ in a big warehouse to collect bits and pieces to work with, occupying locations in society, etc. Thus, for this kind of person, visual representations have a particular force.

That said, I’m ‘aural’ too - but in the sense of resonating to poetic qualities of language, rather than in the sense of being able to survive for more than a short time in an extended flow of spoken language, least of all, gossip or large-group interaction. So, yes, memes mean a lot to me as a mode of representation - but as powerful imagery, not as ‘what everybody is virally talking about right now’. Generally, I feel that if ‘everybody’ is talking about it (outside of a seminar room?) it’s probably off-beam in some way, and bespeaks some shared airheaded delusion! (OK, my problem as a melancholic!) But in the real world it may be necessary to speak that way even to get (mis)heard - soundbites, buzzwords, whatever.

The poetry thing is something to do with a deep sense of material order . . . as an engineer, I ‘see’ (and appreciate the fluid-mechanics forces underneath) the order in the alternating swirls of air at the trailing edge of of an airplane wing, or the spiral phyllotaxis in the spatially-iterated stems of a celery plant or the bumps on a pineapple. I guess, if we’re trying to find some kind of definition for this aspect of this topic, I would say it’s about representations of order. That connects in some way with your notion of ‘invisible structures’? For @asimong , I suspect that the representational means (graphic or wordy) used to communicate order (and ontology?) need to be quite formal?

D’you feel feel we might handle this kind of diversity here, if we’re aware of it? Different minds, different contexts?


mike_hales Sun 13 May 2018 6:08PM

@strypey Your suggestion of four different kinds of commons governance is nice, thanks, and your perspective of code commons as straddling market and grant economies (with some difficulties, which all the licensing initiative are testimony to?). I feel, though, that it’s only in the future that all four sectors might be seen as predominantly commons forms, so that the diagram at the present time - and applied on the scale of a national or regional or city economy - would have to be seen as a map of potential - differing, dynamically interacting - modes of commons economy? Perhaps in NZ it might apply to a whole real economy, in a small area - like maybe Wellington?

Currently, states generally don’t run as commons - typically (neoliberal governments especially) they use their 'public' institutional status to enclose commons and hand them to privatised markets for extractive exploitation. So ‘the partner state’ is a hope and intention - and maybe a trend, if we’re optimistic - rather than a description of very much that is actual, at this point. Likewise, customary or informal markets may be close to commons, and Transition Towns can do a lot with regionalised uncapitalist markets running on uncapitalist forms of money. But the capital-powered extractive markets that dominate our lives are intrinsically anti-commons. The vision of widespread (generative) markets, currencies and forms of ownership and exchange that serve ordinary life and sustain the earth lies in the future. This is the way in which present-day states and markets are addressed by Robin Murray in his article - and he then uses the idea of an emerging social economy to pitch the contrasting commons versions, as a future form that need to be built through activism. However, back in 2009, he didn’t use commons language, which is unfortunate, since IMHO 'social economy' as a concept can't do the same kind of heavy lifting.

In fact, the volunteer economy isn’t ‘completely missing’ from Robin’s argument - it’s significantly present in the text. But the fact that this gets boiled down, in the diagram, to the catch-all term ‘grant economy’ is just testimony to the complexity of things, and to the fact that there are many diverse forms of practice and institutions within this ‘blob’. Real economies and social formations are a whole lot more complex than can be covered by five categories?

When I raised the question of ‘where to put the commons’ in this diagram, I was thinking of actually-existing commons economies. I guess, following your reasoning, the commons in this diagram is the same as ‘the social economy’ blob, just a whole lot smaller in scale at this point? I guess, also, I was holding a difference between
- activist movements that might see ‘social innovation’ as a 'regeneration' or 'job creation' or 'community care' development within the present mode of production (as maybe The Democracy Collaborative does, and The Preston Model tacitly seems to do) and
- other movements (represented by Kleiner’s Telekommunist Manifesto, say) that see the aim of P2P/commons production as taking away the space and the oxygen from all modes of capitalist economy (state, market, consumerist household, and dependent and tiny grant sector) and extending new commoning-relations of production across the whole field, creating an entirely new global mode of production and exchange.

Thus I kind-of pictured the latter activist formations as a ‘wedge’ in the present diagram, of limited scale, containing small present-day parts of all four major sectors, but aspiring to eat them all up? Perhaps this requires a different kind of diagram, which has time and process in it rather than just four static categories? Or possibly it just requires the diagram to be used carefully in ‘storytelling’ mode, with plenty of accompanying words - written or spoken - to spell all this out. IMHO a simple picture alongside a complex story is perhaps better than vice versa, given that many folks are not very concerned to interpret complex diagrams? But more powerful than words alone. Is this where we came in Strypey? Where does that leave you and me @asimong , who are diagramming nerds? :nerd:


Simon Grant Mon 14 May 2018 7:38AM

Thanks Mike @mikeh8 -- I'd just like to correct any mis-impression by anyone that I might be a formalism fetishist. For me, the value in a formally coherent approach is mainly in clarity of intended meaning. I also appreciate poetry, as a medium for conveying more personal meaning, which may indeed mean different things to different people. So it might be useful to reflect on one's purposes: where things need to be clear, use something more formal. For one thing, that's why people have laws, articles of association, etc. In contrast, where the intention of the communication is to open up the imagination, go creative. What I find unhelpful is an inadvertent mixture, where people are trying to convey something clear, but use ambiguous language or diagrams. Or vice versa, where people are trying to inspire, but use a representation that is lifeless and dry.

Here's a nice quote that may feel slightly relevant (I heard yesterday): "And the end of words is to bring [people] to the knowledge of things beyond what words can utter." (17thC, so original had "men")

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