Human-to-human interaction protocols: a submission to 32C3 for a 30 min session

I have submitted a proposal for a 30 minutes talk at 32C3 titled “Protocol 0.1: engineering human-to-human interaction rules for working together” and subtitled “From Saint Benedict’s Rule to modern-day Protocol: designing human relationships for the emergence of good things”. It is based on some concepts recently summarised here. I included links to the relevant posts on Edgeryders and to @Ben's series on

@mishek proposed I publish the proposal, so that he (and maybe others?) can decide if they want to collaborate on the talk somehow. So here it is, any input or proposal for collaboration will be received with thanks (though not necessarily accepted smiley ). Of course, I need to point out that it is just a proposal, and it might very well be rejected. 

Saint Benedict of Nursia, an Italian monk active in the 6th century, transformed the widespread aspiration to a simple and fulfilling life into a hugely important global monastic movement, that built critical infrastructure all over the known world (inns to host travelers; herbal gardens as biodiversity reservoirs; libraries to preserve knowledge and scriptoria to back it up). Thanks to a massively redundant backup system, monks arguably saved Western civilization from the Dark Ages – they had sent copies of the most important manuscripts all the way to Ireland, outside the reach of the barbarian invasion and their fires. Additionally, they built a system with incredible long-term stability: the Benedictine movement is still alive and well, fifteen centuries later. All this was achieved without central command and without a formal overarching organisation: the Benedictines are not an order, but a federation of sovereign monasteries made interoperable by the fact that they all run on the Rule.

We argue this was possible thanks to the Rule, a document that prescribes rules of interaction for monks to live together in a monastery “in relative peace, for a long time”. The Rule does not set goals for monasteries (for example, it does not say “go build a library”). The macro-level behavior of the monastic movement is emergent. What the Rule does is set rules of interaction for people who wish to live together in a monastery to live out their faith. In other words, the Rule is protocol software for humans. It is also open-and-free, and was forked many times over history, sometimes giving rise to long-term successful forks (like the Camaldolese or the Cistercians). We propose that you can design human-level interaction (individual monks in this case) so that the macro-level behaviour of the resulting human system (monasteries and orders in this case), while still being emergent, encodes the values that inspired. In this vision, Benedict is like a programmer who programmed monasticism to do good things for the glory of God, while still leaving which good things monk would do free to emerge: in the Middle Ages that meant building libraries, in the near future it might have to do with manning slower-than-light interstellar travel (a similar case is made in the fictional work Anathem by Neal Stephenson). To borrow the beautiful expression invented by Doyne Farmer, monasticism as a societal dynamic system was neither periodic nor chaotic, but hovering at the edge of chaos.

We consider the advantage of systems running on protocols analogous to the Rule over other protocols, and propose a method for designing and testing possible protocols, based on computational biology and network science. Finally, we propose a preliminary version of Protocol, a modern equivalent of the Rule that has no particular God but is still meant to achieve common good.

The talk makes some reference to medieval history, complex systems science and computational biology, but no prior knowledge of any of this is required.

The ideas presented in the talk have been explored in the course of the past two years, both in theory and (to a small extent) in practice, in the course of the unMonastery prototype in Matera, Italy.

thanks alberto, ok, so i’ll try and interpret this in my own words…

you are maybe suggesting that the rise and self organizing force of modern maker culture is ready to take the next step beyond simple co-working and into some new emergent form of co-living or more deeply embedded daily practice of co-creation, collaboration and indeed a much more socially resilient and sustainable way of life than our current economic model? an important element to making the shift to any new form of social collaboration (and way of life) possible will be the rules of (inter and extra-personal) engagement?

individuals coming from so many different cultural backgrounds, from various levels of creative expectation and ability, gathering in the hope of deeper forms of collaboration and co-creation require new forms of agreement and understanding, new protocols, norms…creating new codes, shared practices, rituals? our understanding of complexity science and various social experiments in living and working together, in new forms of community, brings new clues as to these new codes or protocols…

different angle…

… mmm, not really. I mean, what you say can be totally true, but where I am going with this is:

  • if it true that collaboration is the only way for the 99% to stay in the game ("all we have is each other");
  • it it is true that the concept of a network (like a computer network) is a good way to look at how collective intelligence of people working together is greater than the sum of the individual intelligences that compose it;

then it makes sense to look at what kind of individual behaviour gives rise to the best networks. From this premise, I propose a skeletal set of rules to do that. I guess you could apply to co-living too, but I am specifically looking at working together. Again, I stand firmly in the monastic tradition: monasteries are platforms for collaboration, and the collaboration is treasured because it allows monks to live in full their religion without going mad.