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
Who does the work calls the shots.
Be open, also in the way you think of “open”.
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.
0. Who does the work calls the shots.
An Edgeryders classic, algorithm 0 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 0 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.
1. 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 1 is intended as a way to bring in novelty in any network or community that runs on Protocol. It does not, per 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 1 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 1 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 1 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.
2. 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 2 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 flickr.com. 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).