Protocol 0.1: engineering human-to-human interaction for working together

Alberto's picture

Photo: alex_inside

In these past two years, I have taken part in quite a journey. The unMonastery, born out of Edgeryders and prototyped in Matera, Italy, as part of its winning bid for European capital of culture 2019, prompted me to think some long, deep thoughts on the monastic movement as it emerged in Western Europe starting in the early 7th century. My provisional conclusion is that the dizzying scale, scope and impact of the monastic movement owes much to St. Benedict's Rule, which I interpret as an open source protocol for human-to-human interaction. I have developed these reflections here and here.

Ever since we started researching the Rule, the question always has been: can we do better? Can we apply what we know now about complex systems to write a version of the Rule that would nudge open networks of people, rather than cloistered communities, towards producing the common good (whatever that is), while respecting the freedom of individuals? And can we do that without a transcendent God underwriting the whole effort, endlessly regenerating our motivation? For over one year now people have been speaking of writing a document called Protocol, by analogy with St. Benedict's Rule and Neal Stephenson's (fictional) Discipline. But so far, nobody has done it: even a sandboxed sketch has proven unexpectedly hard to do.

In this post, I have a first go at Protocol. It's nothing more than a sketch, very likely unworkable. But I had fun thinking about it, and I believe I have captured a sense for what the architecture of a fully developed Protocol should look like. I already live according to it, so I know it is sustainable even when no one else adopts it – a necessary requisite of Protocol, whose early followers are doomed to live in a world that does not itself follow Protocol.

A word of warning. Protocol is obviously not enough to make a successful community, just as the Rule is not enough to make a peaceful, thriving Benedictine abbey. Communities need many other things including physical and virtual spaces, databases, economic models, nice people who can tell a good joke, and, most important, shared values to preserve their cohesiveness along the journey. I focus on Protocol here because I am trying to design a setting with the absolute minimum of cohercion. In communities, it is probably inevitable that people must be able to "throw the Book" at each other if something goes wrong; but then, the Book should be minimal and focus on enabling rather than forbidding. Protocol focuses on interaction, and in so doing takes away the incentive to question each other's motivations; orthodoxy ("the why") does not matter, all that matters is how we interact. 

I proceed as follows. First, I state the fundamental units of Protocol, which I will call algorithms (the Rule is divided into chapters; Protocol is divided into algorithms, to follow our computer science analogy). Next, I look at it from an architectural point of view, providing an explanation for its structure. Finally, I discuss each individual algorithm.

Protocol 0.1 as a whole

00. Who does the work calls the shots.

01. Be open, also in the way you think of "open".

02. Never use rhetoric on your brethren.


My inspiration for the architecture of Protocol is complex adaptive system dynamics. Complex systems are interesting because they change, yielding perpetual novelty; but their changing is somehow constrained. They don't fizzle out nor explode, but hover, as per Doyne Farmer's beautiful expression, at the edge of chaos. For this to happen, complex adaptive systems must be subject to two opposite forces; one that produces variation, and another that reduces it. Too much variation, and the system "explodes" and becomes chaotic; too much variation reduction, and it becomes static. The most familiar example of such forces at work is, to many of us, Darwin's theory of evolution: mutation and sex are engines of variability. Natural selection is an engine of variability reduction. The first engine produces novelty (innovation); the second engine gets rid of anything that is not advantageous. Taken together, these two independent forces make species fitter and better adapted to their environment over time.

In Protocol, algorithm 01 is the selection engine; algorithm 00 is the variability engine. Algorithm 02 is there to make sure that algorithms 00 and 01 can function properly, and are not hacked into impotence by gifted rhetors. It is necessary because Protocol applies to the social world, and we social agents behave strategically and are prone to bias – in other words, we lie, often to ourselves, and we come with nasty cognitive biases that make us easy to deceive (vanity, for example). Benedict must have been keenly aware of this issue (Catholicism was never too starry-eyed about human nature) so the Rule contains provisions that essentially forbid any monastic politicking, by placing conflict resolution firmly in the hands of the Abbott (himself subject to the Rule).

I have deliberately tried to keep Protocol minimal to avoid feature creep.

00. Who does the work calls the shots.

An Edgeryders classic, algorithm 00 was dreamed up several years ago as a talisman to ward off whining, complaining and sentences that begin with "We should..." or "We must..". What it means to say is that there is no entity called "We" listening to us. If you want something to happen, you have to make it happen yourself. Only then you will have earned the right to demand that others follow your lead and help you. In my experience, most people who say "we should do X" mean that you should do X, and their contribution is in telling you what to do. Such behaviour is clearly undesirable in an unMonastery, or any environment attempting to get things done.

Algorithm 00 is an engine of selection. It is intended as a way to choose, among many possible courses of actions, those that are followed and those that are not. This does not happen by voting, because voting generates losers (this point is argued brilliantly in Rick Falkvinge's Swarmwise). It does not happen by consensus, because consensus wastes inordinate amounts of everybody's time and gives the complainers the power to veto the doers. It happens by action: if at least one person believes something is important enough to warrant her work, that thing gets done. If not, it does not. This makes a community of followers of Protocol a firm do-ocracy.

If two unBrethren want to follow opposite courses of action, and they are both prepared to put in the work, both are free to do so. It's not inconsistency, it's prototyping, or hedging your bets. If both solutions are successful, they will co-exist. If they are successful and incompatible, the community forks. This is not disaster, but a success: it happened innumerable times in the history of the monastic movement (as well as open source software). Several long-term successful orders, like the Camaldolese or the Cistercians, derive their names not from a founder like Benedict, but from a monastery: the order crystallised around a successful variant of the Rule adopted in that specific abbey, and spread out from there as a fork of the Benedictines.

01. Be open, also in the way you think of "open".

Do-ocracies are a good thing, but they risk a sort of lock-in phenomenon known as "dictatorship of the active". People who get an early breakthrough at doing things acquire valuable experience, that makes them better at doing more things in the future. In small communities (unMonasteries will be small for the foreseeable future), this might lead to insufficient diversity: a small number of capable people do most of the work, so they call most of the shots. Over time, the community becomes narrow-minded and fixated, a mere extension of the few active people; with not enough thinking minds, it cannot really draw on collective intelligence; it becomes a simple system, not a complex one. 

Algorithm 01 is intended as a way to bring in novelty in any network or community that runs on Protocol. It does notper se, generate novelty the same way that mutation does in evolution theory; what it does is explicitly allow people to bring in novelty. It does so by giving everyone permission to reuse, remix and repurpose everyone else's ideas or content. It implies that knowledge in an unMonastery should always be open, in the strict sense of the Open Definition.

Algorithm 01 is recursive: you should be open about what "being open" means. I put the recursion in because I mistrust human nature's tendency to entrench and exclude (or, if you prefer, the fact that cartels are Nash equilibria). To counteract it, the recursion in algorithm 01 recommends questioning the nature of openness, always pushing it in the direction of more of it. Being open about being open, I find, makes me think of non-strict, but fruitful ways to think about openness: for example, it tells me that diversity is inherently positive. Communities who live according to Protocol will actively seek out people who are different, because in an open world difference fuels recombination. The more diversity you have access to, the more free you are.

If an unMonastic community gets stuck in a low-diversity "dictatorship of the active" situation, algorithm 01 does not  place the responsibility of getting it unstuck on the people who are currently active. Those people do what they do, and who does the work calls the shots. Another way to look at it is that the community's function is not to restrict, but to enable, and active people are already enabled! Instead, algorithm 01 points to the freedom that everyone in the community or network enjoys, and insists that we all have more space for action than we think we have. It is our common responsibility to use that space to get unstuck.

02. Never use rhetoric on your brethren

One of the less pleasant experiences of these two years of unMonastery has been the all too human bickering and politicking. Like most people, I got my share of bruises, but try not to take it personally: like everyone else, unMonasterians are people, with all their human fallibility, and we have no Benedict's Rule to guide our steps, no superior to bring us in line. Some of the discussions got quite ugly and insincere, and that really brought home how it is impossible to make any progress without a commitment to seeking the truth, especially when it is uncomfortable.

There are two ways to think about debate: as a common search for the truth and as combat. The conventions underpinning the scientific community, for all their faults, attempt to make debate into a search tool:  peer-review, bibliometrics, high tolerance for strong and explicit disagreement, zero-tolerance for unsubstantiated claims. On the opposite side of the fence, politics has often wielded debate as a tool for aggression. Rhetoric emerged as a technique to argue and persuade. White hat rhetors use it to make their argument clearer and more transparent; black hat rhetors use it to confuse, hurt, undermine and prevail. "Never mind the truth – pursue probability through thick and thin in every kind of speech; the whole secret of the art of speaking lies in consistent adherence to this principle." writes Plato, with obvious contempt, in Phaedrus.

It is unlikely that rhetoric can (or, indeed, should) really be expunged from speech; this point was made forcefully already by classical authors, from Aristotle to Cicero. Algorithm 02 is therefore not an unrealistic ban; what it does is give brethren who take part in a discussion the right (and indeed the duty) to protest if they think rhetorical techniques are being used to defeat someone, rather than to seek the truth with them. Someone will shout "Rhetorical question!" or "Slippery slope fallacy!"; the person guilty of using rhetoric on her brethren will then need to apologise, and probably do the dishes that night. For this to happen, it is advisable that all unMonasterians study the art of rhetoric, with the same attitude that monks and priests employ towards sin.

That's as far as I got. It's rough and minimal, but I cannot think of any compelling argument for Protocol 0.1 to be fundamentally flawed. Can you? I will be grateful for any feedback.

Photo credit: alex_inside on Thanks to Ben Vickers for collecting, transcribing and sharing conversations with several kindly monks on the Rule, life in monastic communities and the monastic economies: Father Cassian Folsom of Norcia (Italy, Brother Paul Quenon of Gethsemani (USA), Father Erik Varden of Mount St. Bernard (UK).



You're a few iterations ahead methinks

trythis's picture

...but I'll start to think into the that "specific" direction. As it is very general I've thrown in the quotation marks. It'll probably take me some time to come up with something useful and concrete.

For now I'll try this:
1. Evolution is not concerned with the well-being, or avoidance of suffering of "subsystems" such as humanity in a wide sense, or individuals. We generally are adapted to a relatively specific set of circumstances and rate of change. Too much or too little openness to openness and our coping mechanisms are more likely to fail I'd expect. Here I am more concerned with rate of global change not so much with local extent of diversity.

2. Does 01 (openness to openness) imply reversibility? I think it does not. I wonder if it would be a good idea to privilege reversible aspects.

3. One of my standard questions: What precludes a rerun? Is this perhaps just how a later stage of this could/would probably look like?
In other words, if this turns into a (limited) success - how is it likely to develop? E.g. is it more suited to a "minority brotherhood" or should it be a mainstream thing?

Also a nice link that seems pertinent to 02:


I really appreciate the effort

Alberto's picture

Thanks as always, @trythis. Let's see...

  1. Correct. This is fundamental, and I have been thinking a lot about that. In some cases, it appears that the health of a system is inversely related to that of its subcomponents: for example, species get better by killing off their weakest members; venture capitalists do well by driving nine out of ten of their partner entrepreneurs to bankruptcy. In the case in question, however, I see alignment; by setting people more free, you make the system composed of those people better. Also, the preference for diversity in 01 is a big component of well-being: you can be a productive and valued member of the community even if you do well one thing, even if it is weird and marginal. 
  2. Reversibility of a sort is built in the licensing. In open source, you can say "you can improve on my code and copy it", and then later add pieces that build on the original code but are proprietary. For example, Android was all open and free when it was tiny against Battleship iOS, but then various qualifications have been added, with most people in the West using Android versions that are not free. A heated debate ensued (example). Another thing you can do is an outright fork of your content or code, stick a copyright license onto it and improve it so that people will want to use your proprietary version rather than the free one. But strictly, no: if I download your open source code I must be able to improve on it for all time. 
  3. Not sure I understand the question. I never ask myself how mainstream vs. niche my stuff is. The relevant question, to me, is: can it survive being small? Because it it cannot, it will never get big. If by some miracle it did get big, it might stay big, because being big is kind of a Nash equilibrium; but if there is no realistic path from here to big, the question is moot. Game theory has this really useful concept of subgame-perfect equilibrium; I try to build things that work well on a starvation diet, because that is the only subgame-perfect move for the likes of me. If I were a deep-pocketed megacorp I could probably contemplate making things big by throwing money at them, and them they would stay big. 

The link is great! Simple wording and nice selection. Classical rhetoric, however, focuses on technique, rather than fallacy. I guess the authors of your link perceive debate as common search, rather than combat. 


Sad excuse for reply

trythis's picture

Dang, I just lost my text here (my fault)! I guess it was getting too long anyway...

I'll try to get back to 00 again later. It ended up with fascism and "Don't just do something, sit there".

For my point 2: I meant reversible as in reset (or gracefully end), not as in reverse engineering.

For my point 3: I worded it real bad. What I meant is avoid "groundhog days".


Lost wisdom?

Alberto's picture

Wow, this is really sad. Let's hope you will find your words again, @trythis!

Yes, I understand what reversible mean. The sense of my comment above is that putting knowledge out in the open as a legal act is normally not reversible. However, you can enact strategies (like making a proprietary fork) that will reverse your business strategy,​ which is what matters to most people. 

I still do not understand your point 3. I assume "groundhog days" refers to a movie. But I do not get it: why would protocol generate reruns? Reruns of what? What am I missing?


01 "Openness to openness"

trythis's picture

01 "Openness to openness"
From a particular perspective this can be interpreted as "carte blanche" or a . Even with its recursive feature I don't see a "minority protection feature" or a cautionary principle. This is to some degree where my other issues to 00 come from. I wonder if "reversibility" can capture enough of the important essence here without becoming too much of an anchor. It can enforce action as much as in-action.
Legal and business, profit, or inheritance allocation questions are of secondary importance to me at this point.

02 rhetoric
How is this different from saying "Don't lie."? Influential people have said it, and many people try to stick to it in many situations (e.g. science). What I am trying to say is: Have you thought through if what you are proposing would not land us in pretty much this (meta)-stable situation again?

Regarding the architecture:
I believe that the dynamic system architecture should be viewed also from a rate of change perspective. Engine and brake only are too dangerous I think. Smaller and distributed engines and brakes are still pretty dangerous (as they too often strive to take over and establish a Nash equilibrium) and may leave little room for cognition informed interference, or just diversity.
I would propose a coarsely scale invariant, self similar system, with nested slightly oscillating (and temporarily suspendable) rate governor(s) (and perhaps a trim-tab). The "settings" on the control systems can allow for more or less dynamic variability depending on the affected environment. Perhaps there should also be space for a "cell wall" compartmentalization feature, e.g. interfacing with a corrosive or corrupting influence, although I am not sure this needs to be planned in detail beforehand.


Law of two feet

Alberto's picture

We do not need a minority protection feature! There is already one, so pervasive there is no need to write it into Protocol: the "law of two feet". If people do not like it, they leave.

Yours is a common objection. For some reason, people think of online communities (but also other forms of social organisations: sports clubs, limited companies etc.) as miniature states. States have checks and balances, so online communities should have them too. But I cannot follow such logic. States need checks and balances because they have power over individuals, choosing a different state if you do not like the one you have got is impossible or expensive. If you are the minority, you are stuck with being the minority. So you need some protection, not to be pushed into desperation. Makes sense.

But online communities? They are frail as the wing of a butterfly. You can hurt or destroy them just by refusing to engage at the right time. There are tens of thousands of them competing for your attention, all of them just a click away. Why should the same rules applies to them as to states? My favourite quotation, from Falkvinge's Swarmwise:

It is every activist’s right and responsibility to go where he or she feels he or she can contribute the most and, at the same time, get the most in return as an individual. If there is no such place within this particular swarm, an activist will leave the swarm and go elsewhere.  

Amen to that. smiley


As for 02: you are right, there is no difference. Except, maybe, that invoking rhetoric leaves us with a tekné, a toolbox that we can learn to use so as not to be swept away by others using it on us. "Tell no lies" is just a moral imperative, but banning rhetoric tells you where to look for possible violations.

And as for system dynamics: you propose system-level controls. But how to enforce them? By construction there is no central control here. Nobody has their hand on the rate of change throttle in an unMonastery. The whole game is not to design a nice system, but to focus on human-to-human, self-enforcing interaction rules that make a nice system emerge! 


A paler re-built lost comment

Bembo Davies's picture
A paler re-built lost comment - not only TryThis falls victim to this much joked about but ultimately ridiculously frustrating feature of the ER platform
( @Tt - I keep forgetting to Write in something more stable and transfer it afterwards):
Ah, since there are but three of us pursuing this thread, I thought I'd better do my bit to carry it forward.
Alberto, I think you've got this badly upsidedown.  Edgeryders was designed to welcome its minorities and the marginal.  To briefly remind you, the remitt (although you wrote it so should know) was to gather the best brains we could in the presumption that given conducive nuturing they would greedily help themselves of each others genius and form new, powerful constellations of allied efforts.  There was nothing in there about engineering a mechanism for repelling those with other methodologies;  in fact I particularly liked the bit about learning of each other's experience.

 That ER has evolved with very, very few of the original participants ( except those drawing income) still visible in its debates, is not by any means a sign of Health.   Dispersing people until they find communities of less resistence, is not a strategy but a tragic flaw.  Organisations require a critical mass, the unMonastery certainly suffers from having only four reliable workers.  I'd even say that a minority treasuring feature may be the way to go (see above or below? for mention of unMonastery Code/unCode interviews about Benedict on listening to the novices.)

I know you keep skirting my themes about the culture of the enterprise.  I've written in several places that the what we do is often arbitrary, it is the how you do it that carries the movement forward and generates intangibles like esprit de corps.
More later...


Alberto's picture

[apologies, I only saw this now] Uh... @Bembo Davies, I cannot find anything in Protocol (or the Rule) "repelling other methodologies". Both are meant as ways to make efforts easier by pooling manpower and agreeing to "sync" to each other. Without syncing, there is no commonality. One cannot be a nonpracticising Benedictine monk! You know this better than anyone, as your main contribution was on the rituals side.

But, I would argue, this is very much not "repelling". Because:

  1. Protocol – like the Rule itself – allows you to do almost anything, from herbal gardens to slower-than-light interstellar travel to meditation. 
  2. Forms of cooperation with people and orgs who do not follow Protocol are possible, necessary and welcome. It will simply be less tight. A historical example: Benedictines cooperated closely with Charlemagne towards the vision a Holy Roman Empire: a single Europe-wide, Christian, pacified political entity. The Emperor and his collaborators were obviously never monks, and were not subject to the Rule. I imagine this collaboration required some kind of interface: one or more senior monks with a special dispensation to live extra moenia, dispatched to court to participate in that effort, and reconvening frequently in the  monastery closest to the capital in Aachen. On a much less grand level, both Edgeryders and the (still mysterious) unMonastery corporation partner up with orgs like companies and universities, and work together with them without demanding they use their same methods.

I do agree with the principle of treasuring diversity. It's in Protocol too: algorithm 01, "be open". No argument.

If anything, I would argue the unMonastery is exclusionary. Remember @katalin's words: "to become part of the group, or to leave" (source). At the time we were discussing the case of David: he had been living in the House, selected in the same way as the others, yet, it was claimed, "he has never part of the group" (source). Why? "arriving at the unMonastery with his partner, his son, a project that consisted of managing others', and independent funding", in other words, doing things differently. Who decides whether one is part of the group? The incumbents. So much for treasuring diversity, huh?

At the same time, for all its many faults, Edgeryders is up and running. Early participants have dropped out, some even starting their own spinoffs (an impressive achievement in itself!); and new people have gravitated to it, without much drama or witch hunts, and that, my friend, I interpret as a sign of health. And here's another one: fairness. Some financial benefits have been derived, and they have been spread out reasonably well, with (I may be off by one or two, our accounts are being processed) 28 non-directors including yourself receiving cash (53,454.64  EUR, of which 42,528.98 in fees and 10,925.66 in travel grants) in financial year 2014-2015 – this does not include unMonastery stipends and other unMonastery related expenses, which sum up to another 32K EUR for a grand total of about 85K EUR handed over in cash to the community. Practically all of these paid assignments were allocated via open calls, as opposed to directed to the inner circle. Directors have received 53,151.43. Ben has received more than I have, for example. I would say the economics of diversity are there! 


Thanks Alberto:

Bembo Davies's picture

Thanks Alberto:

Got your invite into this here. on a previous protocol mention, but any response belongs in direct connection to this one.
I quote your final paragraph in an attempt to weave two threads into one and climb aboard in one place: 

Where we depart is mostly in that I emphasise interdependence from future and potential brethren, whereas most Matera veterans draw a line at the House and at the people who they can speak to over breakfast. The departure is not trivial: it means I think of brethren as a network, which have no in-out borders but rather a gradient of centrality; and you think of brethren-ness as a category, you are either in or out. Furthermore, it means I think of "being an unMonasterian" as an identity, whereas I think of it as a behaviour. For me it's just that I do not like to stick labels on people, because ontology is overrated

This always infuriates me Alberto, that you credit me with no discrimination and insist on lumping me together with a bunch of other people under a collective 'you' to try and tell me what I think.  Neither of us is that stupid - so given that I have previously given you some leeway linguistically when you once addressed me as 'you guys'- I'd like to call you for stooping to unscientific rhetoric. (little winky face thing here)

I'd agree with you totally about unMonasticism starting with embracing a visionary behaviour, and that this is definitely nothing akin to an automatic membership in a club as seems vulgarly celebrated by some of the colourful riff-raff that you (singularly) 've saddled me with  !!!   If I appear to be on another side of some fence, it is perhaps because what I do is support the guys in the field no matter how stupid, soporifically slow, or wrong they may be.  This, I feel, is not your forté : (the impatience that accompanies being a genius ? little face thingy #2 - see below on ER constitutional flaw)   That I start with this is perhaps because I am in the field, but more because it is my discipline, I work overly patiently with (often hopeless) people.

Your breakdown of unMon operating principles is great fun.  You flagged a while back that you had reduced the mass of considerations down to three key lines; I had thought to send an inquiry at the time as in the backspin of writing the Code/unCode document (our best yet), I’d been tempted to scrawl out my grand list of essentials as an undeniable nineteen basics.  (Not that I'd remember a single one off the top of my head.)  These have remained under wraps.  A tricky moment for me has always hampered the process since pre-Matera:  I find it imperialistic to reveal my personal version of Rule;  I somehow want these things to be self-evident.  I could play: "I’ll show you mine, you show me yours." - but recognise that to dare to publish even a modest 0.1 requires considerable bravery.

I like the way you have consistently brandished the Protocol term - the fruits you gather are an example of what I call mining the metaphor -- enlightening as long you keep your eye upon the tenuousness of the initial equivalence.   I have long resisted this language because protocol does not resonate in the same realm for me as it does for say a programmer.  I get caught up in the etiquette of international diplomacy, and find the very idea stifling.  Attempting to get to the bottom of your usage, I ran it by a professor friend in the concrete sciences; she sketched the binary choices model that feeds your usage.  I’ll likely stick with Code as it implies personal alignment with honour and ethics -- not the least scientific, and mired forever in human foible, as they may be. 

The flaw, of course, with Do-ism is when one is or seems to be acting on behalf of a ‘we’.  He/she who does the work can call the shots on behalf of a great many people and create much discord.  Matera certainly suffered from thinly considered solo initiatives.  The balancing mechanism is the ability to listen -- this is a lost art etc. and takes infinite patience - the herd moving only marginally faster than its slowest straggler gets somewhere by allowing some members to be eaten.  But in a humanistic community we don’t really like the idea of cannibalism - one of our interviewed monks quotes Benedict on the wisdom of listening to the novices.

There is also such a thing as a /chronic doers syndrome/, this is often accompanied by a propensity for calling shots.  Suffers don’t usually exhibit large amounts of patience for the meditative contribution of group process; to them it feels like cloying inertia.  One of the key flaws in the Edgeryders set up is that most of us grew up being by and large the smartest person in the room at any given moment.  This is inconvenient to say the least; it leaves us with diminished social skills.  I bestow my presence upon them that would benefit from my wisdom - we needn’t place ourselves in the position of learners, and have more than enough stimulus from the fireworks exploding in our own brains.   But the active people are dependent upon filling the holes in their genius from the back - this requires more strategy and feedback mechanisms than applying yet more Doing...

You’ve covered some of this with being open to openness.  But what this may boil down to is a capacity to being open about other people being less open than you’d ideally like.  A mechanistic declaration of openness becomes in practice rhetorical.  The real work is to factor in whole, fallible people in your programming.

Using truths to negotiate working together is one thing, but unMonks also live together. Truths in themselves can become pretty useless.  Revealed truths are something else again; but these need constant renewal.  The feedback loop that is required is that which can keep doing and shot calling choral.  Father Chelsom said as much in your interview with him; in response to Maria’s question about the function of the Rule, he said to support long term harmonious living.  As I recall, he pooh-poohed our chances.

To program harmony will require us to dig deeper.  There can be no unMonastery for Dummies. 

In my report of the post-Matera “Wanderings”, I put it this way:

A protocol that supports *‘il nostro duro lavoro’*, a life of service and an unCivilisation regime will have at least two sides.  Part of it can be interpreted as constraints: *don’t annoy people.*  However, it is not an elaborate slight of hand to reverse these prohibitions; to read the same directions as how to best support one another’s reemergence from a life of urban subjugation : *enjoy each other inordinately* (in a non-annoying manner.)

Without challenging self-sacrifice, without renegotiating of the chemistry and rhythms of civilisation, without the visceral enrichment of spiritual camaraderie our circles will remain cramped and disheveled.  

">more later...


All good points

Alberto's picture

Whoa, @Bembo Davies. I did not mean to offend you by assigning you to the "most Matera veterans" category. But, really – your original post uses the word "we" about 50 times (sometimes royally capitalised). It even starts with "Just in case anyone wonders what we actually do...". I was mislead in believing your (singular!) words represented the fruit of some collective reflection. I stand corrected. My apologies. 

You have some valid points. Of course, Protocol per se doeth not a community make "just as the Rule is not enough to make a peaceful, thriving Benedictine abbey". I make that disclaimer right in the introduction. Thing is, living together is relatively simple (at least, that has been the case for me over the last three years), as long as you stay the hell away from interfering with how other people live their lives. What is difficult is coordinating over a long term project and using this dance as a way to build ever-stronger human ties. Insights and quite a lot of history (from the sceptics  of ancient Greece to the kibbutzim) are to be reaped in the recent Book of Community by @lasindias

My emphasis on getting things done ("chronic doers syndrome") is also definitely one-sided. It comes from my own experience of struggling with inertia, and being de facto vetoed (even to get Edgeryders going I had to re-do several times a dog-and-pony presentation to my boss of the project she had hired me to do). I completely appreciate that others might see consensus building, or artful living, or rituals, as more important than getting it done. All I am saying is that some ways of interacting are more conducive than others to action. 

I do not follow you completely on the "choral" part. Suppose you do something, without any help from me, that I really like and would have been proud to have done myself. I am going to rejoice for it, and to feel like I am a little bit a part of it, just because I can see better that you and I shared a vision, even though you were able to carry it through and I was not. Keeping to our Christian analogy, it's like a devout person reading about the life of a saint and being inspired to make small changes in her very ordinary life. Chorality is about recognising the same ideal in the inspiring behaviour of someone and in our own modest efforts, is it not? 

Also, I believe you are misrepresenting father Cassian's words (the transcription published here is only a small part of that conversation. Ben has the whole thing). It is true that the Rule is about "living together, in relative peace, for a long time", but the living together itself is instrumental to the faith. At the dawn of monasticism, monks were anchorites, or hermits. "But – said Father Cassian – most people cannot commune with God over a long time on their own. You could go mad." In isolation people thought strange thoughts, and found it difficult to tell divine inspiration and spurious material apart. This finding looms large in the culture; you will see it reverberating in the theme of St. Anthony's Temptations.  Anthony was the first famous Christian hermit in the 3rd century, and remains the most famous one to this day. Father Cassian was simply agreeing with the Rule's Chapter 1: there are four kinds of monks, two of which are worthless. That leaves the Cenobites, "those who live in monasteries and serve under a rule and an Abbot"; and the Anchorites, who have levelled up:   

no longer in the first fervor of their reformation, 
but after long probation in a monastery, 
having learned by the help of many brethren 
how to fight against the devil, 
go out well armed from the ranks of the community 
to the solitary combat of the desert. 
They are able now, 
with no help save from God, 
to fight single-handed against the vices of the flesh 
and their own evil thoughts.

You can be a monk (although an intense and scary one) without living in a community. But you cannot be a monk if your goal is not to commune with God. Similarly (one imagines) unMonasterians are not simply people who live together; they are people who live together in the service of some ideal, or at least with some common goal that transcends domestic life itself. When pursuing a common goal, people need to be working together, and getting things done. Hence my belief that enabling people to action is in general a good thing, and pertinent here. 


Broadening the conversation

Alberto's picture

I just blind-submitted a proposal for a talk to 32C3 on Protocol 0.1. I have no idea whether they will be interested or not. 

If anyone is interested in collaborating, let me know. 


   hello alberto, for what it

mishek's picture

   hello alberto, for what it's worth to you i am interested to collaborate on this topic of protocol, it's something i'm constantly dealing with in my community building experiments.    

   in this particular case of protocol within an unmon setting i wonder how far you can really get just based on speculation?...for every umon experiment is going to be completely different and unique to it's situation eh? ...the kind of people who show up, where, for how long and under what internal and external expectations and motivations...there's a lot of variables here. the end what you'll get as far as protocol is something very basic, such as: know who you are and what you want, attempt to communicate that clearly, show up, do your work or, practice your practice, take into consideration trust (or simply relationship) building and open communication flows to grease the wheels and otherwise simply do your best... it's a bit simplified but i think you get where i'm heading? 

   i am interested to talk through this stuff anytime, but as i mentioned getting academic or into too much speculation/theory around it doesn't go very far, it's better to use real life community situations as a way to grapple with the chaos of those variables...and even better just to get a few of us together to live and work for a couple of weeks somewhere to write up something more realistic :)      (i learned a lot about protocol at a monastery this summer with this group of artists and improvisors, we went to a lot of edges! )



General purpose tool

Alberto's picture

@mishek smiley

The unMonastery is a very rich project, and different people are drawn to different things in it. I like this idea of protocols for human interaction, and I consider it to be generally applicable. You don't need an unMonastery (or a monastery) to derive benefits from good protocol. In the proposal I submitted to 32C3, I do not talk about the unMonastery at all, except to say that some of these reflections came out of its Matera prototype. I also reference some posts here on Edgeryders as well as @Ben's series of interviews on (but also nonrelated stuff, like my favorite computational biology paper). 

I am motivated by the idea of involving people in that space. Specifically: do some work in making this idea communicable through a 20 mins talk, then put it in front of 32C3 and see if they come up with anything interesting. Plenty of smart people in that crowd, if they get engaged I bet we stand to learn something. My rough plan is to end the talk by saying "come talk to me if you want to discuss further", or maybe schedule a longer session at the Edgeryders assembly. Will you be there?

Your summer experience looks really interesting!


Protocol for human interaction.....a very broad subject

mishek's picture

ok, so your presentation won't be specific to any one particular situation or context of human interaction? Hmmm, maybe better if you can share your conference proposal, I'm gonna be a bit lost otherwise, we could just Skype too....



another monastery experience for you, for what it's worth...

mishek's picture

    hey alberto, yet another example i had over the summer of attempting to create protocol, again with a group of artists  ... a demographic that if you can succeed with, you can succeed with anyone :)

to me (michael) our struggles in understanding how to work together as a group of individuals (let alone performance ensemble) suddenly showing up one day at St. Erme reflects perfectly the struggle of humans everywhere to be heard, to be understood, as performers (and the performances we choose to enter) in the daily theatre of life...
the performance space of life is as a loaded weapon (the words i'm shooting onto this page), once expressed cannot be returned, leaving impressions (sometimes deep) upon those involved in the act...
...we each choose to prepare differently for these 'acts' we impose daily upon life, some of us preferring to talk and reflect more, to write, to make lists, others simply to act in preparation for more action with quite humorous and not such humorous results....
it helps then when we find, or create the space among ourselves to slow things down sufficiently enough to really listen, to see a different picture emerge, a different sort of performance unfolding (for we can never escape the performance), to see ourselves better within the actions we are always making...
my inspiration to stay with our particular process (taking breaks every now and then through the week) were these various attempts to create 'space' but just as importantly, all our crazy, spontaneous actions... the shooting from the hip, the bursts of genius popping out of nowhere...performative moments in the St. Lucie room, coming in and out the door, out the windows, off the walls, the floor, moving out into the hallway, through the building, the stairs, the lobby, running out around the was this funny combination of artistic messiness with some rare moments of true listening (to ourselves and each other) that became the hope of some sort of peace and satisfaction being discovered...the finale of finally being one anothers hearts...
if anything about the experience was unsatisfactory it was the limitations of time...those barely few hours we had each day over the week...


"code social"

dante's picture
I know Assemblée Virtuelle ( Paris ) and their partners are working on "Code Social". Furthermore a person from Enspiral is talking at café fil rouge in Paris tonight. Pavlik and others may be there.

Some critique

Thomas Goorden's picture

Based on my personal experiences with these ideas, here are a few critiques:

1. Do-ocracies are inherently dysfunctional

It's one of those ironic things that projects where you can "work on whatever you think is important" often are incredibly dysfunctional. You see enormous efforts strand somewhere 80% of the way to the ever elusive end-point. I think there are several reasons for this. Firstly, motivation is not equally distributed. Not in people and not in time. Which means that an "ad-hocracy" (which describes the situation more clearly IMHO) depends on people being motivated exactly enough at exactly the right time to be able to join specific (pivotal) moments. This means that people who arrive at the wrong time can be perceived as disruptive as they might "just start doing things", which might not be the unwritten group-consensus at that moment. Similarly, people who are for whatever reason (and this can be many things) not motivated properly when "stuff gets going" are left in the dust. You see these patterns in Edgeryders all the time btw.

If there is a clear external drive (e.g. financial motives as in Valve or perhaps a very clearly defined problem to solve, like the Manhattan project or building an off-ramp in Egypte), this might not be a big issue. However, if the goals are not 100% clear and fixed, then ad-hocracies tend to have an ever revolving door of disappointed volunteers/participants in its wake. Whoever does things not only determines what gets done and why it is important) but also when it starts and when it ends. The natural end of adhocracies is, when the people that do get "tired of it", and please "can someone take over". Because the underlying dynamic is that those "people that do" are essentially constructing exclusionary mechanisms all the time.

Another "solution" is to fix the starting point and motivation required to join (e.g. Burning Man), so at least people start off at the same moment with similar motivations.

2. Rhetorical rationality is super-hard

Humans are emotional animals. This is perhaps a cliché, but no less true and highly relevant in this context. What I've seen again and again is that cognitive biases, emotional thinking and the like are way more difficult to avoid than most rational thinkers want to admit. (I say this as a self-identifying rationalist.) The expressed wish to remove rhetorical fallacies from speech is certainly recommendable, but it is an incredibly small minority position.  The vast majority of people don't even have a clue what you are talking about, as they live in a world where rhetorical fallacies are the norm, rather than the exception. If you don't believe that, watch TV for an hour.

So, I'm wondering if "ideal speech" is - at the moment - attainable at all in any random organisation. Perhaps if it can be supported with fairly intensive classes on psychology and logic. I'm not sure if that is the goal of most organisations ("point of human interaction"), to be philosopher schools. Which in a sense, most monasteries certainly are. Incidentally, a recent philosophy weekend was the first time where I've seen a true effort to approach "ideal speech", but even there, with highly trained and experienced philosophers, it wasn't 100%.

The second critique is that "ideal speech" requires quite strong mental faculties. Logical thinking is most of the time not intuitive at all and once you get to Bayesian logic, you've lost at least 80% of the population. So, in that sense, it is also an exclusionary mechanism. Of course, this is less of a problem if you only want smart people to interact with anyway and don't really care about the threshold to get in (example: ccc conferences). But it certainly makes the protocol fail for most organisations you see, where it would literally decimate their size.


Well received

Alberto's picture

Critique is a gift, @Thomas Goorden. So, it is well received, with my thanks.

There are two possible answers to both your critiques. The short one goes like this:

  • do-ocracy is dysfunctional? OK, let's assume it is. But then, so are hierarchy (low productivity), consensus decision-making (near-zero productivity in fast-changing environments), representative democracy (adverse selection)... In an evolutionary context, the group with the best protocol wins, even if the best protocol sucks in absolute terms. 
  • abstinence from rhetoric is hard? Granted, for the reasons you mention and others that have nothing to do with rationality (rational agents can and do use rhetoric to obtain personal gains). But if you want to become a monk, you'll have to take the four vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. That's hard too – in my book, a whole lot harder that accepting a slap on the wrist when you pull a straw man argument on your brother. That did not stop monastic orders from being spectacularly successful both in long-term viability and in impact.

The deeper one, which I think you'll enjoy more, is this. We start from assuming that Henrich is right. That is: we are a cultural species; natural selection drives both cultural and genetic adaptation of homo sapiens sapiens; humans are highly programmable through myelination into old age; and, critically, in the past 200,000 years or so natural selection exerted most of its pressure through group competition. In this scenario, humans self-domesticate: we enforce norms that help the success of the group. For example, even though infants are repelled by spicy food, all known warm-climate cultures encode the (learned) appreciation for capsicum etc. Spices have germicide properties, and help conserve meat. So, a warm-climate culture that learns to like spices is likely to outcompete one that does not. 

So, you see: do-ocracy is, I argue, highly functional and rewarding... for do-ocrats, i.e. people that have internalised this way of working. Other people will internalise other ways of working (say, decision by consensus) and will form other groups that work by the consensus protocol. This is OK. IN fact, Benedict's Rule formalizes the "revolving door": it is easy to try monastic life, but it is also easy to leave it. This is inevitable because, as you pointed out, adopting the Rule is hard. So, individuals pick the group whose norms they like best. Then groups compete, and over time selection will pick the winners. A similar argument goes for renouncing rhetoric. "It does not work for everybody" is not a valid argument: in order to win out, a cultural innovation just needs (1) to get a foothold and (2) to give the adopting group an advantage. If both conditions are satisfied, it will win out, as losing groups will either adopt or die out.  smiley


When all you have is a hammer...

Thomas Goorden's picture

I think that perhaps the punchy way I phrased my critique may have miscommunicated a critical nuance that I actually mentioned: I do think that there are specific conditions where do-ocracy works (although again, I think the common term for this organisational form is adhocracy). As mentioned, in projects where everyone starts at around the same time and where the goals are clear enough for everyone, it can work fine and actually be a lot of fun. E.g. a good family celebration essentially works this way, or at least ours do. (We don't call it an adhocracy, but it's functionally the same.)

However, as with many of the organisational approaches you mention, it seems to me that misapplication is the real problem. A lot of that adhocracy thinking came from the Burning Man festival through the San Fransisco startup culture. (They probably got it from some Berkely hippies in the 70ies, but that's just complicating matters.) In my view, the attempt is to emulate a feeling of freedom and community experienced in good adhocracy environments, without realising just how different a temporary festival isolated in the Mojave desert is from e.g. a large and long-term commercial endeavour.

The same goes for hierarchy, consensus decision making or representational structures. I would add dual structures to the list. Respectively, those approaches work very well for the military, marriage, large scale/extremely heterogeneous environments (like national politics) and non-profit/volunteer structures. But when they are applied in each others context, they just tend to fail quite spectacularly. This actually works better with your "spices for hot climates" analogy, wouldn't you say? The best adapted the methodology for the problem at hand is the most successful. Problems can be very, very different, so the "most effective" processes will necessarily differ.

I'd also say that your characterisation/analogy with evolution breaks down completely when it comes to "competition". This sort of "survival of the fittest" idea a common misinterpretation of how evolution actually works. If it were really that way, we'd see far less diversity, but more importantly we'd see life "compete" mostly in the "best" region on earth. Yet life expands and adapt into all sorts of harsh environments. "Survival of the fittest" is not about being fittest amongst other life forms (competition), but about being the fittest to live in a particular ecological niche (environment). (Dawkins and other argue this point more extensively.) All of which also reinforces my point that various forms of social interaction may very well work best in a particular niche, but not others. (Warfare, markets, creative projects, romantic relationships, etc etc.)

I would also disagree with the characterisation that people tend to internalise a particular approach, effectively becoming "hierarchical" or "adhocracist". Isn't it so that we tend to adapt to the cultural environment we are in and can move between environments quite fluidly? Sure, there are people that bring their preferred methodology and attempt to get everyone to adopt it. But it's quite rare and usually ineffective, no? For those cases, we have the perfect idiom: if all you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I don't understand your comment regarding the monasteries. Sure, they were successful, but as you mention, incredibly difficult to commit to. And, by extension, not that popular/exclusionary (when viewed against total population). This was exactly my point: yes, ideal speech is more or less attainable, but it cannot ever work in a heterogenous group where such olympian mental gymnastics are simply unattainable for most.


Not a metaphor

Alberto's picture

Wow, I must have expressed myself really badly. Let me make my assumptions a little more explicit:

  • That of evolution is not a metaphor. Henrich (and Boyd, and Richerson, etc. etc.) claim that cultural evolution is actual evolution; moreover, it interacts with genetics to produce "packages" that are a mixture of genetic and cultural adaptation (example: persistence hunting package is made of sweat glands + arched feet + tracking + water transport tech). 
  • This model is not about Darwin-style survival of the fittest. What gets selected is not the individual within the group, but the group itself. Group competition is well documented in anthropology, archaeology, ethnography. 
  • In group competition, it is not necessarily the case that individuals "change" to adopt other groups evolutionarily superior norms (though some cases are recorded). Individuals die out, and are replaced by people who adopt the winning packages. This can happen by differential migration, warfare, differential reproduction, etc. In the case of organisational models, if you don't like do-ocracy you typically will be repelled by do-ocratic environments. Yes, it does not work... for you. And yes, you do not adopt it, you leave. That's a feature, not a bug, because you are happier and more productive in different settings. The do-ocratic setting also runs smoother without too many disgruntled people.

So that's my setting. You can buy it or not. I provisionally do: the literature is there, and is consistent with the experimental psychology results best known to economists (Kahneman and Tversky, Knetsch etc.). Anyway, my conclusions only make sense within these settings.

Within the settings:

  • Humans are good at internalising norms as goals in themselves. So good, in fact, that goal internalisation interferes with our rationality, and this is why most humans do not get to Nash equilibria when playing ultimatum or dictator games in the lab, whereas chimpanzees do. Observation confirms that experienced monks internalise the chapters of the Rule. This leads to me to expect that Protocol, too, could be internalised, as long as it gives rise to sustainable communities that provide value for their members.
  • And yes, monasteries, unMonasteries etc. are not for everyone. I do not care at all about involving everyone. I only care about making an environment in which I myself, and people who have similar quirks, can collaborate happily and meaningfully. Benedict had a similar attitude: the Rule says very clearly that the cloister is not every man's path. So do the best worldbuilders I know, for example Chaos Computer Club. Are you upset that CCC is not mainstream? Of course not, you delight in it. You'll need openness to make sure it does not become too self-referential and exclusionary, but we've covered that base.

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