Anticipate: Collective Intelligence Design - Beyond the Event

Between November 19 and 29, 2019, about 30 people worked together across the workshop series Anticipate! Exploring Collective Intelligence Design. What follows is a brief report with some take-aways that maybe of particular interest for readers here at edgeryders.

Btw, I switch from I to we not because I speak on behalf of an imagined collective whose thoughts and actions I wish to definitively interpret, but because I am both I and we, drawing on so many encounters that I often can’t really claim ideas are my own anymore. It comes with the terrain, I guess - collective intelligence is something we intuitively understand to be another word for intelligence in a wider sense (we are always already multiple, constituted in multiple encounters and situations). And maybe that is the best than can happen when new terms are introduced - they change the way we use those we already have.

I co-organized the event with colleagues from xm:lab and K8 (many thanks to Julia Hartnik, Agnès Lotton, Julia Pierzina, Aude Poilroux, Michael Schmitz as well as Andrea Barbiero and Uto Scheidt) and we received financial and organizational support from Edgeryders (@MariaEuler and @nadia). Workshops were being recorded, participants interviewed, audio podcasts are being produced.

Via this post, I want to share some of our thoughts and impressions about the workshop series in Saarbruecken.

Because almost all participants spoke German (and all events were conducted in German), I am afraid that it is somewhat unlikely that our local follow-up discussions (of which there are quite a few, see below) will find their way to this platform. While event registration was set up on edgeryders for German-speaking participants, online registration was not often used, instead participants contacted the organizing team via email.

For events in languages other than English, the logic of directing those interested mainly in the offline exchange to a platform whose content is mainly in English (and which requires registration, even if greatly simplified) may have to be reconsidered. This is something I would like to think about more as we explore the role of multi-lingual online platforms in local offline conversations that see only so much added benefit in creating such a dynamic.

Perhaps this is even one of the meta-takeaways from this workshop series: the role of the local, of structured face-to-face encounters integrated into a local conversation cutting across local spaces is huge. And the role of online platforms less obvious than one might have expected.

Here we go, questions and answers:

Tell us about yourself. What are you working on, and why were you at the event ‘Anticipate!’?

I co-organized this event with my local colleagues because the main issues - data sovereigny and data governance as well as the community architectures structuring and sustaining such collaborative explorations - are key concerns in our work, both in education and research as well as outreach and cooperation.

Recently, we have come to conduct some of these debates in the context of anticipate, our “collective intelligence design research network”. I mention this specifically again because one of the concrete outcomes of the workshop series was a reworking of our method statement “principles of engagement”. We really like it, let us know what you make of it.

xm:lab - Experimental Media Lab was set up at the Academy of Fine Arts Saar in 2012 to host cooperative degree programs (we started with Media Informatics and are now adding Data Science and Artificial Intelligence) and has since then become one of the key places on the boundaries of the academy (yes even small institutions - we have 500 students - have plenty of boundaries and need tons of interfaces to operate - one reason why design for us also means institutional design). Via xm:lab we communicate and cooperate with almost every local tech research institute, from artificial intelligence and cybersecurity to visual computing, allowing us (both educators and students) to co-create a wide variety of arts-and-technology research projects.

K8 was added in 2015 to initiate and implement transfer, think tank, and training activities both within and beyond the academy’s boundaries. Recently, the role of cooperatives in organizing work and value have become a key concern, so we worked together prior to the festival with colleagues, for example, from Salus Coop (mainly Andrea Barbiero) to put workshop materials together, and also reached out to some of our research colleagues to get involved in co-creating the kind of really-low-threshold formats that are surprisingly rare in our own day-to-day academic work.

What was the key question you came to the event with?

More like a set of questions: What happens when we take themes that are still novel but no longer unique - data sovereignty, data governance, the role of decentralized technologies and community architectures in supporting self-determined data practices - and explore them through the lense of collective intelligence design?

What did you expect to learn from this event?

We knew that the different workshops would attract different audiences but were hoping to see some cross-workshop conversation regardless. That didn’t really happen to the extent we had hoped. Beyond that - we also knew that some workshop participants were already involved in data-related debates and assumed they would want to develop very concrete ideas for follow-up activities.

Did you learn what you expected? Have you heard something new? Something that you liked? disliked?

Such insights can rarely be attributed to a single moment, but the workshops affirmed our sense of the need to address these in particular:

Low-Threshold-Formats: We need more of those, and the workshops reminded us of how difficult it is to create conversations for people who bring concerns and interests but have little patience for the kind of academic exchanges that may or may not operate well within the boundaries and logics of academia but certainly don’t easily open up to create welcoming atmospheres for first-timers. All workshops went really well, but they only did so because of the intense work of cultural translation everyone was willing to engage in. A reminder to take the work of relation into account whatever we do.

Cultural Translators: When the local newspaper mentioned the workshop series (yeah) but concluded that its themes were probably originating in a “parallel world”, we had both fun and some soul-searching exhanges regarding our own sense of urgency - if the technologies we want to address and reflect upon play as large a role in reorganizing life and labor as we think they do, how come there is so little debate of (and willingness to engage with) these issues in local media (which play a huge role in local debates)? Many professional networks (take LinkedIn) amplify the connectivity of those already connected, but do little to bring new people into the loop. So instead of looking for the over-network where our visions of collective agency may or may not materialize, more cultural translators (a term adopted from Boris Buden) that wander between the different milieus - of art, research, technology design, work, politics - are needed. This is in part how we understand our own work in events like these, and we hope that future workshops will take this on board, acting as spaces to experiment with this kind of meta-literacy that helps bring people together in more than a temporary feel-good way.

New Imaginaries: One colleague presented current work on databases that quickly connected quantum technology imaginaries to the nuts-and-bolts questions that have to be addressed in any database design. It was a reminder that what used to be science fiction tech also offers a way of creating “thinking machines”, machines not to speed up whatever it is we want to organize but to allow us to think differently. We know that sci-fi has been an ongoing egderyders concern - and as a student of literature I had always secretly hoped that a great deal of this complicated tech research stuff would come down to imagination and language issues. It does. Until, of course, it doesn’t. And yes we still have to talk about protocols, stacks, and all the rest.

What was the key takeaway from the day?

Our own enthusiasm regarding collective intelligence design does inspire occasionally but should not get in the way of getting good work done with the languages people have already available - whatever they are. There are many reasons for that - loss of experience, for example, if a story doesn’t survive the retelling in a new (foreign) language (conceptual idiom, method framework, whatever). That might in fact be a dilemma of using framing narratives more generally - they facilitate sharing and yet establish a story of reference we are expected to address somehow. We do not have an answer for this yet, but then that is probably why it is a dilemma.

To our great (and not entirely surprising) relief - no matter how busy with their lives and labor, people want to work together, especially if the cooperation relates to their actual work and value-creating activities.

Participants from the data coops workshop - which included medical and database researchers as well as entrepreneurs - are now co-developing a series of health-data-related proposals, and we are in the process of initiating a regional mydata hub. Co-organizers from the data sovereignty workshop will be involved in an open data hackathon we are organizing in 2020. And the community architectures workshop resulted in concrete cross-border cooperations between K8 and Bliiida.

What we learned from that (also see below): If an event is designed to contribute to an overarching process great things can happen. When it is approached as an isolated one-off, this is much more difficult. (Not exactly a new insight, but we do wonder whether the logic of “the event” has something to do with that.)

What would you like to learn more in depth at the next event?

And here we go - we are not sure events are the right category for in-depth anything. As much as I like the term (and I really like it; not only because organizing such encounters can be great work, but because in some if the humanities contexts I end up in, the German word “Ereignis” conjures up a fair amount of philosophical controversy - and when you use it it seems that just saying it can make something happen…), process has taken over. I don’t think I really want to think in terms of events anymore.

Instead: what exactly is the process we are setting up, and then, what role can various elements (workshops and festivals and conferences can of course be a part of that) play? Processes are much more than a concatenation of events. What exactly that means, what processes demand from us - key question, definitely part of whatever conversation we are having prior to the next event :slight_smile:

What do I see as the single largest challenge for cooperation at scale?

Cooperation is happening a huge scales already - at scales that were unthinkable only a few generations (years !) ago. The workshop participants from SMEs are already operating in vast value chains, researchers are used to working with and across global scientific communities, activists (we have been looking at those interested in cooperative ethos and experiment) in networks so wide that it is nearly impossible to exhaust their scope.

Working with actors embedded in multiple networks all over the place, I am not convinced cooperation is the main thing to focus on right now. I am more interested in questions of affect and identity. I read, I see - for me language makes worlds. For many people it does not, and few of the languages we use in politics an society really seem to say what people feel. Of course this is what poetry is all about - keep creating new words so the new can continue to appear - but I would have never expected to be confronted with this in terms of the future of democracy.

But if the workshops did one thing in relationship to such broadern concerns (and these broader concerns about the future of democratic encounter and the power of co-creating the world around us are why we do such events in the first place) they were a reminder that often the way we relate to technology has nothing to do with language or knowledge and everything with much fuzzier things like feelings and a sense of self. This is not exactly an easy terrain for people like myself, trained to believe that whatever “anxieties” exist will eventually translate into an interest in co-creating new systems. So: If cooperation is an issue, in this context it is as an issue of translation. In the widest-possible sense.

What single thing would you want to see that supports you to cooperate/collaborate more with others?

One of the concrete outcomes of workshop-related conversations is joint work to change legislation related to the regulation of cooperatives in Germany. The standard business canvas and related start-up conversations leave little room for cooperatives as organizational alternative. This is unfortunate, but legislation has something to do with it so this can be addressed. (This is also what interests us in the property-design-related research agenda outlined for the ICT-54 proposal, btw).

What would be your message to others who did not attend this event?

Talk to us if you are in the area. I think we are familiar with many actors and initiatives you will find useful if collective intelligence is part of what you think about, and we are happy to make you part of our ongoing conversations. The alternative ecosystem already exists, as is so often the case; the question is how to nurture it, grow it, keep it alive, make it viable.

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Yeah, story of my life. Back in 2013, we started looking into early Western monasticism as a possible solution to this. The idea is:

  1. Optimize human-to-human communication protocols for working together.
  2. Be open to any newcomer, but insist on the protocol being non-negotiable.

We know from cultural evolution biology (for example Joseph Enrich and E. O. Wilson) that human evolution is driven by group selection, as well as individual selection. In the evolutionary history of homo sapiens, there is a clear pattern: the groups that are best at collaborating (while being able to protect themselves from free riders) win.

Since Edgeryders’ “hello world” post in 2011, we have been constantly asked for smoother user experience, lower-effort onboarding, and, yes, multiple languages. We have tried to accommodate, with various degrees of success. Eight years on, the jury is still out about the ROI of all that work. There is a tradeoff: when you create a fun, nice event, more people will join it than would be willing to discuss on online platform, so that’s a win. The loss is that these people are now mostly going to communicate with each other at the scale of the event (in the tens of people) as opposed to those who are using the platform (in the thousands of people). The interaction breaks down, and I am convinced that the intelligence in “collective intelligence” is in the interaction, in all but the trivial cases (like guessing the weight of a pig at the Plymouth country fair).

In principle, there is a solution: highly modular, but still connected, interaction networks. These are instantiated by people being in the small worlds of local events, and connecting them with the larger world of the online discussion, like you, @soenke, are doing here. In practice, these solutions work more by art than by science, and we have not completely cracked the problem yet. :frowning:

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Thx much for sharing this. Part of this art imo is finding ways of weaving biographical moments into our exchanges that differ from the narrow confessionalisms cultivated by other forms of social media (sorry but I’ve all but given up on social media as we know it).

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I am not sure I understand… can you give an example?

Also, I added the link to my early stab at Protocol, back in the unMonastery days:

I am really thinking of the ways in which (often surprisingly intimate) self-logging (whatever the site really) and the production of super-creative self-hoods feed into (and off) each other. Not sure how best to put this, but the sense that underlying the flow of seemingly easy-going conversation and ongoing excitement about the scaleability of personal and professional communication exists a darker current of anxieties over job loss, less-than-marketable skills sets and biographies, generally of sometimes desperate self-assessments that come up short of whatever expectations we may or may not be confronted with. The Italian media activist / theorist Franco “bifo” Berardi has referred to communication as “soul work”, a term I really like, secularizing (and thus making available in ways beyond religious or spiritual usages) a key term to approach a more holistic idea of what we do when we express ourselves, linking self- and world-making in what is ultimately a uniquely personal practice and a way of being-in-the-world. Not as “actor”, “citizen”, or “stakeholder”, but as a full human being, whatever that is exactly. This is also why I have never viewed alternative (federated etc) communication platforms as “the” solution or the sole means of exiting the universe of what I would call extractivist empowerment (no denying that people find ways to use fb et all for good, whatever the limitations of the corporate visions driving the development of these commercial platforms). If we follow the same protocols of individual and collective self-production on new platforms not much is gained imo. This is one of the reasons I find the data coop scene interesting - is there more than a technical solution? What ethos for expression in a world driven by data and automated decisions - guess that is one of the questions I have as we cross the threshold of another decade.

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@soenke, thank you for this discussion of your events. You mention in the beginning that the main language of the events and follow up discuss is German. We could still include and profit from that on the platform here as we are able to code in discussions of different languages due to the needs of the poprebel project :). So if people write something interesting in German, we would still love if it finds its way here somehow :slight_smile:

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