Center for Internet Volunteerism, Instruction and Collaboration

For the 2003 Planetworks Conference June 6-8, SF, CA USA:

We are asking:

  • How can the Internet be used to mobilize global citizenry around other critical issues affecting our future: ecological destruction, resource depletion, human rights and economic justice?
  • What communications strategies would best enable us to mobilize networks, draw attention to specific issues, envision alternative solutions, and bring about change?

-- From the Planetwork 2003 conference home page at www.planetwork.net 24-May-2003

Although no exact number can be given, the order of magnitude of the number of cells in a human body can be approximated to 10^14 or one hundred trillion cells.

-- From http://madsci.wustl.edu/posts/archives/mar98/889221957.An.r.html 24-May-2003

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The Planetwork Mission in a Complexity Theory Framework

I think the problem of how to apply computer and internet technology to achieve a transformation of humanity that will result in our reaching a sustainable society is similar to the difference between a human being and a hundred trillion single-celled organisms.

If you pulled a hundred trillion protozoae and amoebae out of a pond somewhere and told them, "Okay, now you've all got to get organized. This recent algae bloom thing has just about killed off all the fish. You have to start thinking about the big picture and acting accordingly. Pace your reproduction. Limit the toxins you give off..." and so on, you'd rightly be considered nuts since pond scum doesn't organize except in old sci-fi B-movies.

And yet, the roughly one hundred trillion cells in your body have somehow specialized and organized into a whole new organism: namely, you. Cells are born and cells die. About every seven years marks a generation of cells in your body. Nearly all the cells are replaced in that time frame. On the microscopic level, you are no longer the "you" that you were. Still, the emergent pattern of you continues for several decades. Interestingly, it is the nervous system that is less often replaced and many nerve cells stay with you from birth to death.

The global challenge before us is, in essence, how to organize over six billion individual humans into an emergent pattern that has longevity, balance and a vested interest in the big picture of life on Earth. It's a vision both beautiful and terrible at the same time. The "Leviathan" was an early conception of society as a body made up of many humans. We know that the animal kingdom has many examples of such meta-organisms as bee hives and ant hills. Some, such as the authors of the book "Hive Mind", have already anticipated the emergence of a colony-pattern of human behavior made possible by the internet. Perhaps the internet serves as a prosthetic nervous system enabling humanity to become a meta-human organism.

The Trade-off Between Interests of Society and Interests of the Individual

The spectrum of human culture spans the extremes in the inevitable trade-off between society's interests and individuals' interests. There are issues that are purely individual such as your paycheck. There are larger social issues of city, state and national interest, such as wars. And then there are issues that are purely global, such as global warming. I find it interesting that global warming's best solution, The Kyoto Protocol was articulated and adopted first in Japan, a country that perhaps best exemplifies reverence for society's interests above individual interests. It's also no coincidence that the most recalcitrant country with regard to the Kyoto Protocol is the United States, perhaps the best example of a culture that gives more weight to individual rights than society's interests.

Philosophically, I value both paradigms. I feel that the most meaningful and rewarding aspects of my life are the times I've endeavored to help bring about this larger, emergent pattern that some have called the "Global Brain". I feel it's necessary for human survival. And, at the same time, I believe human survival is important and beautiful because of my own personal, individual experiences of joy and beauty in life, how much my moments have meant to me, and, by extrapolation, how much others' moments mean to them. Good authors are far better at communicating the truth of this basic human dilemma than I'll ever be.

Open Source Development as a Model for Large-Scale Collaboration

So, we must be very, very careful how we go about constructing the global brain. We know it is a powerful thing. We've glimpsed it in the extraordinary successes of the open source software movement where hundreds of thousands of individual programmers, cooperating through the medium of the internet, produced some of the world's best software: Linux, Apache, Perl, MySQL, etc. Of course, all programmers really need is e-mail, ftp, a text editor and a C compiler and they have everything they need to collaborate on a massive scale. But we've also begun to see other communities besides programmers brought to life by internet projects such as MoveOn.org. There are principles of success at work here. Eric Raymond details many of the principles in his book, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar". These principles can be adapted to projects other than software development as I've detailed elsewhere. For example, I believe MoveOn.org's success is partly enabled by their practicing the "release early and often" principle with their calls to action.

The Democracy Imperative

More and more software and web tools will emerge that will help other communities of interest collaborate with each other. I hope to make a career out of that process myself. But the really big picture is the emergence of the global brain, the meta-human consciousness or "hive mind". I believe that to preserve the value of individual freedom in a meaningful way, the emergent pattern must incorporate (make "of-the-body") democratic and egalitarian principles. Otherwise, we could end up creating a negative utopia worse than Orwell's and Huxley's worst nightmares.

Sense-Process-Act Feedback Loops

We know that the most basic algorithm of life and all cybernetic systems is the sense-process-act loop that repeats over and over. Our actions affect the real world and the possibly altered world feeds back into our senses and then we decide what to do under the new circumstances and take new actions. This principle governs the simplest thermostat and the smallest single-celled animals. It also applied to this largest of all organisms, the global brain. This basic feedback-loop structure provides a framework for placing many of the new collaborative systems we are developing in relation to each other.

For the global brain to be democratic, every individual must have equal access to all aspects of the global brain and participate, at levels they choose, in all three of the main categories of sensing, deciding and actions. As a supercomputer programmer of many years, I can't help but notice the similarities between the problem of coordinating large numbers of people effectively and the problem of coordinating large numbers of computers effectively. My thoughts on that topic are available elsewhere. Suffice it to say that issues such as workload-balancing, communication bandwidth and latency and effective problem decomposition all apply to both massively parallel computers and cooperation between large numbers of people.

Components of the Top-Level Feedback Loop for the Global Brain

First, for collaborative sensing of the global environment, I would suggest a massive bug-tracking and feature request database similar in many ways to help desk applications. There have to be ways of attaching the documentation showing problems in the real world, sometimes this would include machine-gathered data. The help desk "tickets" could be aggregated, by mutual agreement, and any number of people could sign onto tickets as interested parties. The tickets with the highest numbers of interested parties would be the ones that would pass into the next phase (decision-making). I believe this piece and the decision-making piece that follows must both be one-person-one-vote systems.

Secondly, for collaborative decision-making, I would suggest voting on proposals that are formulated in response to help desk tickets. There could still be representative democracy through a proxy system, but the proxies could be revoked right up to the time of the voting by individual voters. Proposals that are approved by this system pass into the next phase (taking action). Securing this process is a tricky matter.

Finally, collaborative actions on a large scale would involve a web-enabled project management and gantt chart system of a scale never seen before. There would be parameterized functions for repeatable project templates such as getting-a-bill-through-congress, boycotting a company to effect behavioral changes, benefit concerts, running a political campaign, and so on. The templates would generate task-objects with dependences between each other all mapped to a skills inventory. Individuals would also have skills inventories that could be used to match them up with tasks needing to be done. Other resources such as money, materials and building space could be allocated to move various projects along.

Collaborative actions would be of two main types: projects and objectives. The main difference is that projects have finite duration, they implement a change and then stop. Objectives are ongoing goals that may give rise to sequences of finite projects or simply repeat the same actions over and over.

A Hierarchy of Feedback Loops

It is expected that many of these objectives, would, in turn, become new sense-decide-action feedback loops. This kind of self-similarity between different levels of a design fits well with complexity theory. The main new feature of these sub-loops is that they would report to and be modifiable by the higher level processes. Because many objectives will require monitoring to determine success, some sensory processes would also become feedback-loops of this type.

The system would tend to become a hierarchy of feedback-loops, but there does have to be an initial implementation to get the ball rolling. Once started, this system can be used to design and transition to successive improved versions of itself.

Global Brain 1.0

To summarize, the initial implementation of the "global brain" as a sense-decide-act feedback loop requires the following components integrated into a cohesive whole:

1a. Sensory & Input-- Initially a help desk system for reporting bugs and feature requests for the planet. Overpopulation is a bug. Global warming is a bug. Ozone depletion is a bug. Loss of biodiversity is a bug. War is a nasty bug. The planet is a supported product. We are all Earth Quality Assurance workers.

1b. Prioritization -- A democratic process whereby many users add themselves as interested parties to bugs so that bugs gain "weight". One person = one vote.

2a. Report Results (sensory data) to higher level process. This is not necessary for the highest level process, but is included here for purposes of re-using this design for subordinate feedback loops spawned for continuous sensory functions or to support long-term objectives.

2b. Receive new directions (if any) from higher level process. This is not necessary for the highest level process, but is included here for purposes of re-using this design for subordinate feedback loops spawned for continuous sensory functions or to support long-term objectives.

2c. Decision Support -- Solutions or alternatives are gathered, proposed, reviewed, evaluated and prioritized. Networks of reputation and trust are essential to this process. An endorsement advances a proposed solution to the "action" stage for implementation. Again, one person = one vote is essential here at the highest levels. It's possible that monetary "voting" may be appropriate for lower level processes. This is likely to be a subject of heated debate as the system takes shape.

3a. Action: Formulate Project Plan, possibly re-using parameterized project templates from previous similar projects and computer-mediated project specification by project managers.

3b. Action: Allocate Resources. Retain qualified workers and/or volunteers. Acquire materials, equipment, space, facilities, etc. Purchasing, HR and other modules fill out this component.

3c. Action: Execute Plan. The system mediates coordination of global volunteers and workers, plus resource delivery. A/P, A/R, payroll, gantt charts, notifications by e-mail and/or pager that tasks are ready to be worked on, notifications to project managers of progress or lack of progress. This part is, essentially, a very large ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system.

3d. Action: Evaluation of the effectiveness of the plan is technically part of the next iteration of the sense-process-act loop, but needs to be mentioned here for completeness.

The GBUI (Global Brain User Interface)

You log in and establish your identity to the system.

If you've learned some new skills since you last updated your skill set, you can update your skills inventory.

You can update your availability.

You can file bug reports about various problems in the real world, large and small. You may also add yourself as an interested party to other new bugs and thus increase the priority of these items. You may remove yourself as an interested party to bugs you deem resolved.

After reviewing the bugs related to the objectives that are of interest to you, you may propose projects that you think will solve the problems reported. You can also add your comments to other proposals. You may vote on any proposal and see if the group is ready to pass or endorse a solution. Proposed solutions are not necessarily exclusive.

If your interests have changed, you can add or delete projects, missions, objectives, purposes from your watchlist. These terms are interchangeable and all amount to leaves of the tree that is the taxonomy of all the specific objectives around which communities of practice may be formed.

You can donate your personal resources (money, materials, time) to the various projects. Organizations may also contribute resources, but If you're a decisionmaker in such an organization, you'll probably log in to that organization's web portal, in an interoperable way, and participate in that organization's decision-making process regarding whether or not to resource various projects in the common space.

You can search for matches between your skills set and the skills required for the various tasks associated with projects that you are working on, then apply to the project managers to be assigned the tasks you're interested in.

You can view a list of tasks assigned to you grouped into completed, currently pending and tasks waiting for others to complete predecessor tasks with estimated times they the tasks will switch to currently pending. You can update the status of the tasks you've completed. Completed tasks are evaluated as to how long it took you to complete compared to your original commitment, if you met your commitment and the quality of your results. These feed into your on-line reputation and can be seen by project managers when they make decisions about whether or not to assign new tasks to you.

You may receive e-mails reminding you about tasks that are assigned to you when all the prerequisite tasks are completed and you are good to go on your part.

You may, as a designated project manager, define the tasks, dependences and skill set details of a project that you are managing.

In this way, problems are re-framed as solution-projects, projects are approved, resourced and completed. You get to participate in as many of the projects as you're capable of. You get to work on tasks related to projects you are interested in.

Conclusion

World-wide collaboration to solve environmental and social problems will require humanity to act more as a single organism than as individuals. Cooperation will be more important than competition. Tools for structuring this cooperation can be organized into the framework of the fundamental cybernetic sense-decide-act loop. In a democratic model, every participant must have access to all parts of the sense-decide-act loop.

The kinds of software packages that initially seem to model the requirements for the various pieces of the loop are: help desk tickets communicating individual perceptions to the collective (sense), some form of computer mediated parliamentary procedure (decide) and web-enabled project management software (actions).

It remains to be seen if existing packages in these categories can be interfaced together or if it will be easier to implement on top of a single database and data model.

I am currently working on an entity-relationship-diagram (ERD) that will support the above functionality, or at least help define the requirements, and would like to offer this collaboratory "patch" to get discussion started with others who are interested in participating such a project. In essence, this document is bug report 0 and it is solution proposal 0. It is now in the approvals stage and your feedback and support will determine if a community of practice comes together around this approach to working on global problems in a computer-mediated democratic manner.

Marc Baber, Eugene OR USA May 26, 2003. (revision 0.1)