How To Prevent Infighting And Self-Destruction In A Community

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Saturday, 7.36am

Sheffield, U.K.

Last century we needed lawyers; this century we need big, broad coalitions. When extremists decide to attack all our communities, they must hope that there will be infighting. But we have stood all for one and one for all. That is how we will win. – Benjamin Todd Jealous

It’s funny how certain quotes roll around in your brain, making you wonder whether their time has come again. One of those is from Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing, who wrote that the stock market is a voting machine in the short term, but a weighing machine in the long term.

There are differences of opinion about what is short term and what is long term but I’m starting to wonder whether this statement applies more generally. Do you think that communities, businesses, societies are destined to always follow the popular vote or do they have periods of instability within longer periods of overall calm? Are things going to go the way they seem or are we going to find that things settle down eventually, when all is done, when all the votes are counted, when cooler heads prevail.

Now, I’m not referring to a particular election, although that’s clearly something that might fall within this area of inquiry. Instead, let’s look at a different period and ask what is going on, then and now, and whether things are changing, or whether they are the same but different.

A code of communication

In the early days of the Internet, when email was invented and we had Usenet, group emails and forums and all those things, people got very excited about these new modes of communication and piled into conversations with thoughts and opinions and energy. You had the invention of flame wars, long drawn out arguments between people and all the other things you see happening on social media today. You knew an argument stopped being useful when people started making comparisons to Nazis when talking about others.

This led to the development of rules about how you should act in these groups, and eventually started to be known as “netiquette”, a combination of network and etiquette. Just good, polite behavior online so that we could have a conversation, get along, have robust debates but end up in a better place than before. It’s hard to police this as well. All too often, posts pointing out spelling errors seem to be riddled with spelling errors themselves. Eventually, many communities find that it’s just easier to set out what’s expected in writing, so that people know what’s right and what’s wrong in the community they are thinking of joining. Free speech needs to be balanced with civil speech.

Is it hard to write these rules? Well, you could do worse than to start with looking at RFC 1855 – Netiquette Guidelines. This is from 1995 and you can adapt many of the rules to whatever community you’re building now. There are some interesting ideas in there, such as the economic impact of communication. The cost of communication is paid about equally, it argues, by sender and recipient. Spam, trolling, multi-posting may take up time for you if you’re doing that sort of thing but you’re also causing recipients to spend their time and resources on them as well.

What this also means is that if you want to join a community you will probably need to agree to support its declared position on various topics. That’s obvious when it comes to political parties. If you sign up, you sign up to their policies as agreed and communicated through their processes. You may disagree with some of them but if you want to be part of that community you work within the processes they have to voice your views, address your differences and abide by the eventual decisions.

What happens when there are no rules?

In my experience, perhaps your own too, there are two situations I see when things start to fall apart. The first is where people get together and no one really has the knowledge needed to put the basic administrative structure in place to enable civil conversations. People have a go at doing it and you end up with various permutations. Groups that encourage fewer rules find themselves constantly setting meetings to talk through things. Groups with detailed rules end up spending all their time interpreting rules and following processes, so that the only way to get things done is to game the system, understand and use the rules to your advantage.

And then there is power, the ever present pursuit of power. You have situations where someone new comes in and wants to make a difference – and the first thing they need to judge is loyalty, who is loyal to them and who is not. And then you have a purge. It happens quite organically, sometimes. People see the new person come in and decide to leave.

The thing with power is that it’s a faithless thing. The moment you get power is also the moment where it will start to drain away. The people beside you feed off you and so you have to be strong. The minute you show any weakness, the wolves start circling. Having power is not the same thing as being a leader. Perhaps the single biggest difference has to do with who is in control. A person who wants power wants control. A leader wants to set out a vision, a strategy, and then get out of the way of capable people who can execute.

And that means that an effective leader is also an effective communicator and, to do that, they must first be an effective listener. You need to listen to what is going on so that you can talk fluently about what needs to be done. But, of course, you can’t tell the difference between a leader who will leave a legacy and a power-mad crazy person who will leave a trail of destruction. Such conversations eventually take us to Hitler, and that marks the point at which this post should stop – as it’s reached the natural end.

The unhelpful conclusion, really, is this. The best you can do if you want to build a community that doesn’t implode is to set out some rules for the people who want to join your community. Create an environment where they can debate and argue and work to change the rules. If they can’t, they can choose to leave or choose to accept the rules. If you’re in charge, then get out of the way, support and help them to get thing done and spend your time removing obstacles.

Try and do the right thing.

It’s not really that hard to do…

In the next post, I want to look at members, how they flow into and out of a group and what we can do to make this process work well.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

The Secret To Building Your Community

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Friday, 5.22am

Sheffield, U.K.

Most men today cannot conceive of a freedom that does not involve somebody’s slavery. – W. E. B. Du Bois

As we get older it becomes harder for us to imagine doing anything other than what we’re doing right now. We’ve dropped more than one anchor, and these commitments keep us in place, constraining our freedom to move around. Of course, we get certain things in exchange; money, security, family, associates, so it’s not a bad thing by any means. As long as we are where we want to be and are happy there.

In my last post I looked at rituals and their role in community creation and preservation. In particular, they create opportunities for engagement helping people to connect for all kinds of reasons, from looking at working together to meeting your future partner. But is that all there is, creating an event, or is there more to creating your community than that?

Going to a show

Many, many years ago at university I was active in student societies. You might be familiar with the scene that happens – used to happen – at the start of a new year. An open day for all the societies to set out their stalls, a chance to engage with potential new members and get them to come along.

The objective is to promote yourself, to get members in. Having a membership is the most important thing for a student society because membership brings in revenue and lets you put on activities. The larger your membership the more things you can do for them.

But is it just about numbers? After all, students also have the chance to go to events, and hundreds of them go along to the various club nights. Does that make them members or are they customers? After all, they go along, pay their money, listen to someone playing and maybe have a dance. They are there with a host of others and they may be fans and have interests in common with everyone else there. But is there a difference?

I think there is. When you go to a show you are a fan, part of a group of people who all like the same thing, the act, the band, the feel of the place, but you’re on the outside, looking in. Watching a performance is a little like going to the zoo. You’re there, separated by glass, bars or moats from the action. The scene is in front of you and you may be thoroughly enjoying yourself, but you’re very definitely separate from the action. You’re an onlooker.

Being part of something

One particular society I was part of could handle a very large number of people and I think that was because of one thing. We had a committed group of volunteers. Other groups that did a similar thing usually had one leader, supported by one other person. But, in general, that one person was the center of attention. The participants came to learn from that person and he or she could only handle a certain number of people and sessions. So, people came and learned but the event didn’t scale and there was always a sense of the “teacher” and the “students”.

But why did we have volunteers? Thinking back, it was because the group of volunteers went through a training session together, a sort of boot camp, that got them to work closely together and form bonds of friendship and professionalism. There’s a sort of magic that happens when you involve people, when you go beyond just letting them see what is going on and have them experience it for themselves. When you turn them from passive observers to active participants you create the conditions for volunteers to come forward.

I participated in a couple of online sessions yesterday which brought this difference into focus. The first session was a performance, expertly facilitated, video introductions and then discussions between experts. You had participation, with questions from the viewers and it all went very well. Most people, I suspect, watched it. Perhaps thought about it a little and then went on with the next thing they were doing.

The next session, later in the day, had a different structure. It started the same way, with a guest lecture but then it moved into an activity, where all the participants were split into groups and we went off to work on a task together. Before the task I was listening, but also a little distracted with other things that I was doing. Once we had the task, though, and there were a couple of other people and we got through the introductions and started to work on something together, it felt like something changed. I was much more involved, engaged and interested. And I finished the session feeling like it had gone well, I had really enjoyed it.

And the thing that made the difference between the two sessions was how the second session helped us to really get involved, by setting a task we worked on with others. That’s different from asking you to put in questions that are answered by an expert. The act of working together, of learning together, is a very powerful tool to get people to engage and really get into what you’re trying to do.

Harnessing the power of volunteers

The most powerful thing you can do if you want to build a community is to get intentional about growing your volunteer base. When people do things because they want to rather than because they are paid to do it you create a powerful, unstoppable force. But you need a way of doing this that helps you build a community rather than a power struggle. Creating a program people have to go through before they can contribute is a good idea, it helps them go through a shared experience with others that sets them apart, as a group, from everyone else. That is, I think, the single purpose of a military boot camp. It’s an induction process that is designed to take a group of people who don’t know each other and forge them, in a few weeks, into a cohesive unit that can then be trained in specialist skills over time.

The thing with involving others, however, is that you are put into a position where you may have to give up control of your project, and you may be very attached to it and not want to do that. And that’s okay, it’s possible to keep control and stay a certain size. Or you have to figure out how you can keep control of certain things while still enabling the growth of the community as a whole. This is hard to do and there will be splits and schisms and falling outs and groups will break up and go their separate ways.

I think the groups I was part of first started to see a split developing over attitudes to money. There was money coming into the societies and people wanted a bigger share of it rather than keeping it for the future community. That was a problem, and it led to differences of opinion and a falling out. The thing that ended the community, however, was losing the space where we operated. That was the end, but after a decade of involvement it was good to be able to walk away.

I think it’s worth looking in a little more detail on why communities split or fail or go their separate ways. Are there any factors that could help predict the failure of an organization?

Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Do Rituals Help Bring A Community Together?

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Thursday, 6.16am

Sheffield, U.K.

Throughout human history, people have developed strong loyalties to traditions, rituals, and symbols. In the most effective organizations, they are not only respected but celebrated. It is no coincidence that the most highly admired corporations are also among the most profitable. – Rosabeth Moss Kanter

I have a memory of my grandmother. Every morning she would go out into the garden and wander around her favorite plants, picking flowers. She would come back into the kitchen, where a little shrine was set up and arrange the flowers around the images of the gods and family members that had passed on. It was a ritual, a habit that she and many millions of others did and still do every morning.

I had a different upbringing, one not immersed in the traditions of my culture and so I never really did any of these things. I watched from a distance, read my books and got on with whatever seemed important at the time.

As I grow older, however, the years seem to be marked by one ritual after another. In the West you have the big holiday periods, Easter, the summer break, Halloween, Christmas, and then you have all the others. It sometimes seems as if there’s a holiday or celebration happening whenever you turn around. It’s not just about religion, birthdays are marked with rituals, as are marriages and deaths.

Organizations have rituals too, from set times for work and lunch breaks to the weekly get togethers and social breaks. I suppose we get a feeling of comfort knowing these things exist, that there is an opportunity that has been structured to allow us to get together and get along. Rituals help us to know that there is a community here, we do the same things and we have experiences we can share together.

Intentionally designing rituals

What then, is the purpose of a ritual and how can you go about designing one that works for your organization? After all, rituals are just a concept and they can be used for good or bad. For example, I’ve heard stories of bosses who hold meetings and challenge their teams to justify their ideas in front of everyone else. Do they do this so that the best ideas come out or do they do that to show they are the smartest person in the room. Is that ritual the equivalent of a blood sport, a challenge to get in the ring and fight? Or should it be about something different, a shared experience that leads to focused, joint action?

The kind of rituals you create probably depend on the kind of culture you have and the sort of people who get to be leaders. If you have an aggressive, macho culture then your rituals are more likely to be confrontational, designed to select and display winners. If it’s more collaborative, accommodating, that comes through in rituals that are about joint ownership and multiple authorities.

I suppose you need to ask yourself what you want from these rituals, what are you trying to incentivize? And it often comes down to money and how that is used. Let’s take religious rituals, for example. If you think of the rituals you go to as part of the community then there is a good chance that there is an element of fund raising going on. It’s an event where you go, you get an experience and you put some money in the collection pot to keep funding the institution that gives you those experiences.

There are rituals you do because they are part of your own journey, typically what happens at various ages and stages of life. Again, while your religious institution might do them without a fee, you may feel like you need to contribute and that exchange takes place, money for god’s blessings. Now I’m not trying to denigrate the sanctity of the rituals but you have to accept that there is a basic economic process going on. It takes resources to give you these experiences and religions have had to work out a way to fund those experiences and give you what you need to feel part of that society and community.

This is why even secular alternatives to religions rituals will have an element of ritual about them. If you have a civil ceremony for your marriage, for example, there will still be a formal process that gives you the experience of going through a ritual, something that solemnizes your experience and marks it as different, somehow special from all the other moments in your life.

You have to ask yourself, then, what the rituals are that govern how you live and whether they work for you in the communities that you are part of. And, if you want to build a new community, you have to work out what you want people to do and design rituals that incentivize the kind of behavior you want from your community.

Designing rituals online

Perhaps the simplest way to think about rituals is to see them as something you do consistently, something that is done in the same way each time. That makes it easy for people to understand what happens and how they can join. For example, right now you will see lots of online meetups. People are desperate for connection and these meetups give you an opportunity to join a community of like-minded people and share an experience together.

But what is it that will make these meetups successful in the long run? Will they create communities or will they create megaphones for the founders or will they be platforms for placing messages that go out to people? The Internet lets you do all this and more and you may well find members wiling to listen whatever option you go for. So it starts with you trying to work out what it is you want people to do – listen quietly, engage actively or have a series of experiences that end with them buying something?

I think there is a balance you have to strike, starting by working out what kind of community leader you want to be, one that fires up the community and leads it or one that listens to the community and serves it. You have every kind of example out there in front of you, you have the chance to experience a myriad different ways of doing things and it doesn’t take too long to think through the extremes of how this might work. Do you exercise tight control on what is said or let free speech reign? Do you spend most of the time presenting or lecturing or do you encourage participation and practice? Some of your options online will be constrained by your choice of platform. It’s hard to engage with hundreds, thousands or millions of participants. You need to keep groups small if your objective is to do that. Then again, if you have that many people in your community then you’re going to have to use a megaphone.

A sense of belonging

I suppose what you have to think through is how someone is going to feel when they go through the experience you design. Will they feel like this is something they could take part in, belong to? Or is it too different for them to accept, too extreme? Or is it exactly the kind of extreme they’ve been looking for? Unfortunately you get every kind of extreme out there. We want to look at the cases that create a benefit to us as people and a community. So let’s look at what “belonging” means in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Prepare For And Deal With Conflicts Through Contracting

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Wednesday, 6.24am

Sheffield, U.K.

“In my experience, people are usually fired for reasons having to do with budgetary constraints, incompetence or not fulfilling the terms of a contract. – Michael Shermer”

At the very heart of human society, underpinning every community is the idea of a contract, an agreement to act and be in a way that works for all of us. The word “contract” seems like an intimidating word, bringing up visions of complex wording and hard-to-understand concepts but there is a difference between the form and expression of a contract on paper and what it actually means for us. And what matters is what we believe because that leads us to take one action or another.

Entering into a contract

Recently our children wanted a treat, to get something they wouldn’t normally get. So, we asked one to write a contract, set out on paper what they would do in exchange for this treat. We ended up with a brief set of terms, essentially promising to be good, do homework and go out when asked. The other child was asked if he would sign the contract and he rushed to do so, although I did caution him to read it first.

He didn’t and then realized after signing that he didn’t want to agree to doing his homework and then tried his best to get out of the deal. He put forward persuasive arguments, including that he shouldn’t be expected to sign his first contract without making mistakes, it wasn’t fair to hold him to it.

We resolved the issue through negotiation and eventually figured out that he was open to doing his homework later, not just right now, and things were okay again after that.

What this little vignette showed me is that even with a simple domestic situation contracting is an activity fraught with conflict. There are many situations where we have to sign long legal documents and we go ahead without fully understanding what we’re signing up to. Sometimes it seems irrelevant, like most software contracts. What exactly do you sign up to when you accept your phone’s terms of use? The risk of getting something wrong seems low. At the same time I prefer to use Free Software for all my work because I don’t like having to agree to those terms because I don’t know what they are.

Is the law any help?

The formal system of law and lawyers and contracts has never seemed all that useful to me. Lawyers seem to spend a lot of time working through what should happen if really bad things happen. Or they try and make sure that you can do something without someone else being able to challenge you. They come across as instruments of power or instruments of denial rather than instruments of agreement. At some point we appear to have moved, as societies, from contracting our own agreements to having professionals do it for us. That makes sense in some cases, because the professionals know what usually goes wrong from having experienced a number of situations and so they can tell you what to put in to deal with those common situations. For example, if you’re buying a house and the seller hasn’t disclosed that there is a fault with it you want to make sure you’re able to do something about it.

That previous paragraph has contradictions – are lawyers useful or not? They are when what you want them to do is point out where the traps are in the road you’re planning on taking. What do you do if an employee steals from you, if they don’t do their job, or if you don’t get paid your share. But you have to also ask yourself why do things go wrong in the first place? Why do people not keep to the terms of the contracts they’ve agreed?

The law in your heart

A more useful idea I came across is that of a “psychological contract” – an unwritten set of expectations that govern our social interactions. We expect to be treated fairly and when that doesn’t happen we are hurt and upset. Once again you can see this clearly with children because they don’t hide their anger when they see a psychological contract being broken.

I experienced this a few minutes ago. Last night we promised one of the little people a green apple but there was only one left in the basket this morning. So, I cut it in half, which one could agree with because he was getting half an apple but the other found issue with because he had expected the whole one. What made it more complicated was that the one who was happy with the half had also had all the other green apples, so had taken more than his fair share. But do you look at the history of consumption or the fairness of division in the moment? From such simple conflicts you get generations of instability with consequences you can see if you look anywhere in the world today.

What matters to us is how we feel about what is going on, which then leads to our reactions, anger, fear, a desire to retaliate. And we try and manage, even avoid those emotions through rules and contracts and agreements. And they work much of the time, or they don’t matter much of the time and as long as we go ahead and do what we’re supposed to do things eventually work out. Unless they don’t.

Pistols at dawn

We are biologically built to defend our territories. You might think it’s a male trait but females will fight to protect themselves and theirs equally fiercely. We saw an example of this in Kenya. A group of lionesses were stalking a herd of buffalo and the usual method is to try and isolate a weaker one, usually a calf. But the mother was having none of. A group of buffalo, with a calf close on the heels of the mother repeatedly charged the lionesses, forcing them back and eventually into a retreat.

Disputes have often come down to personal animosity and two hundred years ago you would have met at dawn and dueled to death. Life is different now and most people wouldn’t see that as an option and duels take place in courtrooms instead. Perhaps that’s because we do have more experience in setting rules that work most of the time. Or perhaps the institutions that have survived are the ones that set better rules and those have endured.

For example, there are members clubs out there that have been going for a while perhaps even centuries. Their rules have changed over time. At one point they probably didn’t admit women or people of color. Few would still claim to do that overtly, even if they practice one kind of discrimination or another. I saw an interesting thread on Twitter about why someone would object to Voter ID. After all, surely you couldn’t object to something that cuts fraud. The articulate response from one person was that there is nothing to suggest that voter id would stop fraud. What it would do is stop a whole lot of poor people who find it hard to get official ids – they don’t drive, attend college, have a passport – from voting at all. Unless you give every voter a free id your only purpose in doing this is to enable only rich people to vote – and that’s a naked political tactic.

Rules of engagement

We aren’t born knowing the rules of how to get along. We’re taught those rules as we grow up in society. But societies are different and when you move from one to another you learn new rules. I am often taken aback by people who have experience of only their own society look down upon other societies without really taking the time to understand the other’s history. At the same time there are things that are wrong, things that shouldn’t still happen.

But they do, and people stoke up fear and hatred because it’s easy to do. For example I saw a message recently that suggested a particular community was growing and posed an increasing threat to the rest of society because of their extreme views. The post suggested the whole community was a threat and if you took it at face value, as many people might, you would be scared. At the same time you have to realize that in a free society people spend a lot more time watching shared cultures on TV than they do in their own culture. Extreme views are often held by a small group of individuals, most want to get along in their societies and get on with business.

I suppose what it comes down to is that you have to participate in your society and if you want things to be different or if you want your traditions to continue then you have to decide if you are willing to do something about it. You have to engage with your society and community if you want to avoid or deal with conflict when and if it arises.

Let’s look at how that’s done in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Would You Have The Courage To Find The Truth?

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Monday, 5.15am

Sheffield, U.K.

“The opposite for courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.” – Jim Hightower

There are always things that people would prefer remained hidden. And there are people who have the courage to expose the truth. But is it just courage or is it also organization. Do you need a society that encourages openness rather than one where secrecy prevails?

The free press

Freedom of the press has emerged over the centuries as a right, the ability to say what you see or think even if that annoys or infuriates people. And people don’t like it, for obvious reasons. Journalists get put in jail, murdered and intimidated. Yet members of the profession carry on, looking for the story. But there are fewer of them because of the way the business works, people with the money pay to keep the media in business and money comes with influence and pressure.

Things have, of course, changed over time. During the Indian independence movement Gandhi understood the power of the press and the way the West would react when the truth came out in their newspapers. An informed population would do the right thing. Would the methods of non-violence have worked against nations that had a different approach to press freedom? Perhaps not.

These days we are all free to publish. If you run a demonstration then you will be on camera, filmed by the police, by your opposition and, if you have any sense, you will have your own team of camera people recording what’s going on. The intense scrutiny everywhere is showing just how much violence there is but it’s not showing anything new, it’s just showing up what was always there. And the thing about behavior such as this is it cannot stand the light, it takes a certain kind of individual to stand and lie in the full glare of the camera. But, of course, there are a few of them around as well. Things are changing, though.

The rise of database journalism

When I started looking at this topic I had an image of someone who headed into a dangerous situation looking for the truth. But it’s never that simple, where you suddenly go into a place that reeks of danger, from where you may not emerge alive. Perhaps it happens but if you were in that situation you’d try and tilt the odds of coming out alive in your favor before going in.

I remember many years ago, when I first entered college, a friend took me to a coffee shop and introduced me to a chap. This guy was sat on his own at a table at the back, or was he alone? Did he have a team around him, quietly watching? I was introduced to him and he asked a few questions, almost like he were sizing me up, like it was an interview and he was gauging where I stood, whether I was a resource or a threat. It was only when we left that my friend explained that this person was a rising local political activist, someone who would probably go on to be prominent in local politics. And that started to explain that air of menace and a hunger for power and the eye on who would help and who needed to be gotten out of the way.

But the majority of the time what investigators probably do is investigate. They look at records, ask for information, look for patterns. There is information out there and the absence of information is also a signal in itself. It’s a signal that you shouldn’t go there, invest there, do anything there. And then you hope that things will change, that people will realize that being transparent is good for business.

News and society

I started this post by thinking I would explore a story about a meeting, something I saw on a TED talk where this guy went and interviewed a gang leader and told his story. That’s the image at the top of this post, the feeling of terror and dread going into a situation that could be life or death. Would you do it? He did, not just on impulse, but after introductions, vetting, a process to reduce risk and build trust. Even gang leaders want to be heard, there are reasons why they have become the way they have. You remember Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”, which was portrayal of the Mafia. Vito Corleone, the Don, didn’t choose to be that way. He was born into a situation where acting honestly got you killed and he then made decision after decision that led to him having power and wealth and control. There is a theme that even gangsters want to become legitimate business people – there is more money to be made out of the shadows than in them.

But when you look at the big picture, we are fortunate that we live in a society where there is more happening in the light than there is in the darkness. The freedom of the press is available to everyone. The cost of entry is falling and the ability to capture and share what is happening around you is within the grasp of many more people. Of course, there are also less people listening and a few people who get most of the attention but that’s not the point. It’s not about how many followers you have but whether shining a light in the spaces you live in will lead to improvements there.

A group of people that have no way to share news, no way to learn about what is going on cannot be seen as a community. You need that gossip, that shared knowledge about what is going on. And that’s one of the elements that you will need to build if you want to create your own community. You have to ask yourself how you will keep the news flowing, how you will keep people informed about what is going on.

But what is news and what is not? What we’ve learned over the years is that people get very good at manipulating whatever you put out there. If you go on the Internet, you expect to be attacked by people who want to exploit any vulnerabilities in your setup. A few years ago I set up a server and it quickly started getting thousands of attacks from computers trying to guess usernames and passwords. This is industrial, state sponsored espionage. You do your work expecting to be attacked, and do what you need to do to fix vulnerabilities. In society, this often comes down to rules.

So let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Is Your Place In A Community?

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Sunday, 7.36am

Sheffield, U.K.

“Who is a professional? A professional is someone who has a combination of competence, confidence and belief. A water diviner is a professional. A traditional midwife is a professional. A traditional bone setter is a professional. These are professionals all over the world. You find them in any inaccessible village around the world.” – Bunker Roy

How do you fit into your world? Do you have a place, a niche? Or are you still looking for one, looking for what you can do, where you can do it and how you can contribute to your society and community? Have we really moved that far, are our societies composed mainly of soldiers, laborers and clerks – and then those outside the mainstream?

The nature of hierarchy

A state of hierarchy implies that there is a set of relationships between elements and, in particular, there is one element that is at the top. This means you can have a very flat hierarchy, with a number of elements subordinate to one or a tall hierarchy, grouped into multiple levels, as you traditionally see in organizations or the military.

What matters in society and community is often where you fit into that structure. It’s also more important for us, on a day to day basis, on how we are doing compared with others who are at the same level than how we are doing compared to others at the levels above or below us. After all, you might be delighted with your bonus until you realize that your coworker got twice as much as you did. That will often rankle more than the Chief Executive getting one hundred times what you received.

So what is it that gets us into the hierarchy in the first place and then how do we position ourselves in there? And does it matter?

Claiming your place in social status

The psychologist Jordan Peterson has talked about dominance hierarchies as having a biological basis – animals fight for status and so, he argues, do we. His views have been criticized for not taking account of the diversity of human societies over time. He also suggested that what we should be looking at now is a competence hierarchy, where your status in modern industrial or post-industrial society is largely dictated by your competence. This is perhaps nicely summed up by the phrase “Be nice to nerds. You’ll probably end up working for one.”

On the other hand, life just isn’t that simple as the last decade or so of politics have shown us. The information society we live in has made dominance politics perhaps even more important as people rush to the safety of messages and leaders that promise both to protect them and help them dominate others. The messages of competence and community are drowned out as the animalistic, fight or flight parts of our brains crowd out the reasoning and rationality required for compromise and accommodation.

What this probably means is that there is no formula, no sure fire way of getting to where you want to be. The path you take depends on the destination you’re aiming for and you need to play the game the way that works best for you. You can be who you are, you can be what your audience wants and you can be something in between. But that’s something you need to decide. Your worth, however, will be determined by others and how they feel you are contributing to them and their way of life.

When it comes to society anyway. When it comes to things that have to work, then there is a difference force at play.

Operational or technical status

A different approach seems to matter when it comes to technical tasks, the things that require actual competence to complete. This is captured by a observations that come down to something on the lines of “Those who can, do. Those who can’t are promoted to management.” It’s very easy to stand around and talk about what needs to be done. But when it comes down to it, the people doing the doing are too busy getting on with that to also think about the management of the process. And this leads to predictable problematic situations.

Take the handling of the Covid pandemic, for example. The professionals know how to handle patients who present with symptoms, they know how to build hospitals, set up processes, and create safe working environments. Once someone enters a hospital they will go through an industrial process that gives them a better chance of living.

Politicians, on the other hand, have the power to make decisions. But they are uniquely unqualified to make decisions of a technical nature and so they make decisions based on what’s best for them because that’s all they know to do. For example, a politician will take action to lock down communities after it is clear that infection rates are rising and people are dying. If they locked down before people started to die they would be criticized for destroying livelihoods without proof that there was a problem. So, they have to wait until the problem is visible before they can take action. If you’re an airline pilot and you see a mountain looming ahead of you then the sensible thing to do is increase your altitude, fly over it. A politician is in the unenviable position of having to first bump into the mountain and then, when it’s clear that there is a problem, try and take evasive action.

Which then leads to the second challenge, which is that as they cannot do anything useful they have to set objective and targets for others like mandating a certain number of tests a day. So the professionals, in addition to trying to diagnose and cure patients have to record and report on what’s going on. So the objective of the individuals involved becomes to monitor and report rather than do. The intervention of management, then, reduces the effectiveness of the system as a whole.

Does this mean that the competence hierarchy theory does not hold, that dominance is actually what matters?

A fine specimen

I suppose when it comes down to it everything matters when it does. We were on a beach in Wales and a couple of young women walked by and I caught the phrase, “It must be great having a husband like that.” For an instant I thought they were talking about me but, alas, I then saw the object of their admiration, a sculpted Adonis strolling with his partner. We are, after all, biologically driven underneath it all. Above that we have a veneer of humanity, a thin one, one that we have evolved over time but that we are still figuring out how to work with. Evolution is too slow for us, our brains have created a way for us to adapt to our circumstances that go beyond mere biology but we have to remember that he biology still underpins it all and when things go wrong, we will revert to survival and savagery.

But community is not about that, it’s about that veneer of humanity in action. It’s about having the courage to be human and overcome the flight or flight circuitry that’s hardwired into our brains.

Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Does Life Really Need To Be As Complicated As It Is?

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Saturday, 7.42pm

Sheffield, U.K.

“First we thought the PC was a calculator. Then we found out how to turn numbers into letters with ASCII and we thought it was a typewriter. Then we discovered graphics, and we thought it was a television. With the World Wide Web, we’ve realized it’s a brochure.” – Douglas Adams

After a round of recent updates it’s becoming clear that some of my computers are getting a little long in the tooth. The relentless need for more bandwidth and higher resolution applications along with sneaky decisions by developers to create lots of processes that hog computing resource is pretty irritating. After all, does a browser really need to use quite so much memory and processor power? What are we trying to do here really?

It sometimes feels like we are in the relentless pursuit of bloat, more of everything at the expense of all things. Having more does not make us better off or smarter or better looking. It all just slows us down, adds weight and acts like anchors, physical, mental and financial. And is this really helping us at all?

I realize this is just moaning, and Douglas Adams in “The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy” gets it right as usual, remarking on how people complain all the time, including how things went bad when we came down from the trees and started walking around, while others are of the opinion that we really shouldn’t have left the seas at all. I also appreciate that the complaints I have will seem pointless to people who do not quite see that constraints are freeing in a way that resources are not.

For example, the Raspberry Pi is in the news, with a gorgeous throwback to a computer in a keyboard priced lower than a weekly food shop, less than you’d spend on a takeaway on certain days. The Pi 400 is an entry level desktop computer and while it’s aimed at students there’s no reason why you can’t try and use it for other stuff as well. I thought I’d try an experiment for a bit and see if I could do the things I wanted to do in the world of the Pi, and actually go back to a previous model, the Pi B+, which is even cheaper.

There are a few core things that I do every day, write – in a blog or papers and draw the images that go along with these. Drawing is the only reason for starting up the graphical display, the X interface, what most people think of as windows. The rest of the time is all about text and that’s fine in the command line, in the old DOS looking terminal. Now, can I do that, can I spend most of my time looking at black and white, including for Internet research and only surface to the desktop when I need to draw something?

Well, so far it seems like I can. Elinks is a fine text mode browser. Using Screen I can create windows and copy and paste text from one place to another, like with the quote that starts this post. I post what I write to WordPress using org2blog but I have to confess I am not a fan of the interstellar spaceship that is emacs. I prefer writing in ed and vi. But emacs has the awesome org2blog mode that makes it so much easier to post what I write to WordPress.

Already as I do this it’s distraction free, I cannot do anything other than write without effort, so I have to make an effort if I want to distract myself. There is the cursor and the page and that is all. I only need to go to a browser when I am looking for information and the rest of the time I am free to move that cursor along, word after word, line after line. There is no email popping up, no LinkedIn to check, no news to worry about, no update on what Biden is doing right now or whether the other guy has finished with golf.

Now, for those of you that haven’t seen a Pi, it’s the size of a pack of playing cards. It’s sitting here, working away, doing what I would do with a lot more computing power. That said, this little box probably has most of the power of my eight year old machine, but given that I am using forty year old software it has all the power I need.

Anyway I don’t have much more to say on this matter other than I’m going to try this for a bit and see what happens. There should be no real effect on anyone that reads this. It might just make it easier for me to focus on what matters.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How We Feel About The Others Around Us

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Thursday, 5.57am

Sheffield, U.K.

Everyone wants to be seen. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to be recognized as the person that they are and not a stereotype or an image. – Loretta Lynch

In my last post I looked at groups and some of the types of conflict that we see arising around us. But why is this, and why can’t we all just get along?

Resorting to stereotypes

In 2002 Fiske, Cuddy, Glick and Xu [1] proposed a model of stereotype analysis that suggested that while there are many factors that affect how we see each other, two in particular have a big effect on our reactions. They termed these warmth and competence. Competence is relatively easy to understand but the word “warmth” is harder to appreciate. It tries to capture the idea that we are biologically programmed to assess whether someone wants to harm us or help us and react accordingly.

That seems a poor choice of words, leading to reinforcing stereotypes with the added burden of an emotionally laden term. After all, if you label someone as low in warmth you don’t just mean they wouldn’t help you if you’re in trouble. You also mean they are cold, heartless, unsympathetic and from there, it’s a short step to deciding that they’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.

In searching around for alternative words I’ve settled for “exposure” in the adapted model in the picture above. After all, how do we get to know whether something is harmful or not? If you look at how animals respond you’ll start to see how it works.

For example, the first time you meet someone else’s dog, the chances are that it will be wary. Animals are wary of everything when they first come across it. Then they quickly pick up signs that you are a friend, and as they get to know you they warm to you. Warmth, therefore, emerges from exposure and the realization that you are not harmful and are, in fact, helpful. If you’re a danger or a threat they’ll warn you first and then attack or run depending on what seems appropriate in those circumstances. Or if you are neither, they’ll ignore you and get on with investigating the nearest tree.

First reactions

Once we caveat what we mean by exposure and warmth the emotions we have when we respond to others start to become clearer. We’ll come back to competence later, but for the time being let’s take it as a sign of status. After all, if someone is in a better situation than you that must be because they are competent and if they are in a worse situation that must be because they are less competent. That statement is open to attack, but if we take it as true for the time being then we can look at the extremes and how we react.

If you look at someone who is better off but you don’t know well then you wonder why they are up there, what do they have that you don’t have. You envy them. If you are better off than others and wonder what they did to get themselves in that state, then you have contempt for them. On the other hand, if people are better off than you and you see them all the time, on television, you follow them on social media and like the stuff they put out, you admire them. And if they are worse off but you know them well then you sympathize and pity them.

This is why marketing firms and politicians and influences saturate you with information. The more you are exposed to something the better you feel you know it and the more likely it is that you will engage or interact or support or buy the thing being promoted. The amount of exposure also results in a paradox, even if you vehemently disagree with the products or opinions being peddled you can’t avoid being exposed to them, not if you want to have a chance to disagree or oppose those positions.

Second thoughts

What this means stereotypes form and are reinforced as your exposure to groups increases and you form perceptions of their competence and the level of harm they pose to you and your way of life. Reality is complex and nuanced and how you think is going to change over time, if not over generations. Groups that you perceive in a particular way didn’t get there overnight, there is history and precedent that weights down every thought and contributes to creating the reality that you see.

It also means that we have to take the time to engage with groups that we are underexposed to, and that takes time and effort. And courage. How many of us really have the courage to go into a situation that we haven’t been exposed to before and illuminate it, for ourselves and for the benefit of others. What does it take to do that kind of thing and should more of us be doing that?

We’ll look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

  1. Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(6), 878–902. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.82.6.878

The Nature Of Conflict In Groups

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Wednesday, 5.41am

Sheffield, U.K.

Britain is not homogenous; it was never a society without conflict. The English fought tooth and nail over everything we know of as English political virtues – rule of law, free speech, the franchise. – Stuart Hall

Are you the kind of person that speaks their mind and stands up for what they believe in, or are you the kind of person that listens, deliberates, looks for compromise? What creates the need to do this in the first place?

The conditions for conflict

Imagine a number of people swimming up and down, back and forth. As long as they keep to their lanes everything is fine. If they move off their lane, however, and into someone else’s way then you have the creation of a situation, one that may be quickly resolved, or one that escalates into conflict of one kind or another.

There are a number of instances where conflict can arise as shown in the image below.

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This list of conflict types covers a huge spectrum; it’s mostly what we read in the news every day. It’s a vast topic and there are many sides to each story in each type. That’s part of what makes it hard to decide where to focus when looking at this area. At the same time any conflict situation you are likely to face probably involves a mix of all these elements so you do need to understand them as a whole to see what is going on.

The interplay of attributes

Joining a group is something we do several times as we live our lives in society. You’re born into a particular group, gaining an ethnic identify and a culture. As you grow up you start to define your interests, both individually and as a group. You start to take on roles with increasing responsibility throughout your life and you’ll spend most of that in social settings, including the work you do at your organization, where you will also interact with other organizations and groups with their own collections of individuals with their own cultures, ethnic identities, interests and roles.

It doesn’t take much to see that there are inevitable flash points, situations where something doesn’t go right, where someone swims into someone else’s lane and tempers start to flare. There’s a process to this, an initial event leading to a reaction which either escalates into full-fledged conflict or that is de-escalated through the actions of one or both parties.

In addition, you can have conflict within each group or between different groups, all with the continuing mix of attributes depending on how diverse they are.

One model that seems useful in understanding these areas the idea of stereotypes.

We’ll look at those in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Equality, Popularity And Control – Some Thoughts

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Tuesday, 5.52am

Sheffield, U.K.

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. – George Orwell, Animal Farm

What would a world look like where a few people can shout, their voices amplified with a megaphone, while the rest of us can only whisper? We don’t need to imagine that kind of world, it’s the one we have now. But is that fair or is it just the way thing are and always have been? Do we just need to accept the world as it is or is there something we can do about it, or do we just need to get better at engaging with the world on the terms we are offered rather than the terms we might prefer?

There are options but I think you have to decide what kind of approach you are going to take when thinking about them and it takes time to get to grips with the complexity of it all. It will always be easier to do the easy thing and, as long as you go for that option, the what’s possible will stay invisible.

As I work on the content for this Community book project I have to say it’s quite hard. It takes longer to think through what’s going on and write words than if I took a faster and less involved approach.

For example, if I look at my social media feeds, the business related ones anyway, there’s a lot of stuff out there. Is it worth trying to think about what it is, whether there are categories of material or do you just take what’s there as it is. Why would you engage with a piece of content? Well, because it interests you, it’s newsworthy or useful. Or you were sucked into clicking on it because it seemed interesting but when you looked at the detail it was simply clickbait. Or its content that you want to share with others who you think might find it interesting.

Do we think that there are real communities building on social media or are we seeing something artificial, something that looks like the real thing but that is in fact carefully manipulated to give us an impression of togetherness? For example, I hadn’t quite realized that the main social media platforms regularly refresh the content you see on your feed. You could argue that this means you get more content put in front of you. At the same time it makes you feel like the platform is active and new content is being put out there all the time so if you aren’t checking it you’re missing out.

I’ve recently joined an alternative social media platform called Fosstodon, my handle is @ksuresh@fosstodon.org if you want to connect. This article is an introduction to how it works and it’s the one that pointed out the value of just having stuff ordered chronologically. This means you can look at what’s new and then get on with whatever you’re doing rather than constantly refreshing your screen to see if anything new has turned up when in fact it’s just the algorithm faking it to make it seem that way.

What this seems to lead into is the concept of socialization. You aren’t born knowing what a community is and how to function in there. Your community teaches you what normal looks like and you accept it. In fact, you never really ask questions about it because you don’t have to, it’s like fish wondering about water. We take it for granted that there’s a way to be, a way to search the Internet, a way be social and we take the easy routes, the ones that pop up. So most people will use Google to search and Facebook to keep track of their friends, and Twitter for whatever Twitter does and WhatsApp for private group discussions and YouTube for media and that’s that. That’s what we’ve been socialized into doing just by dint of the fact that these are the biggest, wealthiest, noisiest platforms around and if we’re not on there we feel like we’re missing out and when we get in there we find that there isn’t much space left for us.

Of course, that isn’t the case. There’s always room for you as long as you have resources or a plan and really want to get famous. For example Derek Sivers came up with a set of directives and one of them had to do with getting rich, because it’s much easier to become famous when you’re already rich. His argument is that people only value stuff that they pay for and so you might as well make money because if you’re making money] then that’s proof that you’re being useful.

Now, there’s a lot packed into those statements and I need to unpick some elements. If you’re doing something useful then people will be willing to pay for it. Enough people at least to make it viable. You might have a whole lot of users and only a small percentage may find what you’re doing useful enough to sponsor your work but ideally your project should at least break even. If it doesn’t, if you’re losing money on the idea then it’s destroying value and that’s a bad thing. Your time is worth something and if you’re spending all of it for free reading other people’s marketing material then you should be getting paid or getting value of some kind.

Ideally, whatever you’re doing should make a lot of money. I recently read that the Raspberry PI Foundation, which has just come up with a brilliant Christmas present, is the fastest growing computer company in the UK. It’s also a charity. Red Hat Linux was bought by IBM for 34 billion. The privacy focused search engine DuckDuckGo has gone from nothing to 2 billion searches a month, nothing compared to the big competitor that does over 100 million searches. And then when the money you’ve made exceeds what you need to run the business and pay people well you’d use the rest to make things better. And that’s what some of these businesses do.

All this is of course very marginal, really on the edges of the huge business that is business. What you see are ultra-wealthy individuals on social media, the new billionaires with hundreds of millions of followers who promote products and get paid for doing so – they are the ones with the megaphones. That’s business all right but when it comes down to it what exactly are you looking at when you see products being promoted in an entertaining way? It’s marketing, it’s entertainment. Is it community?

What differentiates marketing content that aims to build a community from any other kind of community? Are you not being brought together by your shared love for the thing that’s being promoted? If you had an actor or a singer who had a wide fan base because of their work, then wouldn’t you call that group a community? How different is that kind of system where you have one person who is the figurehead, the center of attention, from a religions community?

It’s hard to tell a “real” community from a “fake” one by just looking at what they look like. From the outside they share the root elements, the thing in common, the shared passion. So perhaps we have to look at outcomes. Social media platforms can be seen as spaces for communities to form, not as moderators or supporters of one community over any other. Of course, their rules help communities live or die, grow or vanish because they control visibility, the algorithms control what is seen and visibility is oxygen for communities. That’s no different from the responsibilities of a government, that has to decide what kind of rules its citizens want to live with. The platforms are not neutral even though they would like to be and that means they will increasingly be forced to behave in ways where they use their power to set rules responsibly. And they may need to balance the need to be fair with what is popular. If the last few years have taught us anything it is that if you allow people to lie without challenge then people will believe them and the world will be a worse place for it.

We can perhaps only tell what a good community is by the things that it does. Network marketing businesses, for example, are really in the business of growing members not selling products. That model is a sham, a few people make all the money, not from what they sell but from all the membership sales they make to new members who will never see the kinds of returns that are being promised. And there are other models branded as “community” that are based on coercion and control – many political movements among them.

So where are we with this so far?

I have to admit that I’m a little daunted taking on this project. Sivers writes about his experiment with daily writing and found he didn’t like it. It meant he was publishing stuff that wasn’t ready to be read. He felt he had promised to only put material out there that was worth reading. On the other hand I have been writing daily (apart from holidays) for 915 days and much of this material is not worth you reading all the way through, it’s work in progress, research notes, the kind of material that I can draw on to eventually make sense of something.

I don’t think the community point is as easy as saying do X, Y and Z on these platforms and you will end up rich and famous. It’s more complex than that, more nuanced. And I don’t think it’s going to be in a form where I have clear conclusions in each post. In fact, each post may be a confused mix of angst and second guessing as I work out what I think about this topic. Somewhere in all this material may be a nugget of something that is useful

Fair warning then, these posts may not be worth your time. I’m still going to keep writing them, however, because they’re worth mine.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh