The first iteration of the unMonastery is not yet over, and already it has produced highly valuable knowledge. I submit we are ready to have a first stab at an unMonastic Rule, a modern equivalent of the document that scaffolded the rise of the Benedictine movement since Benedict himself.
I have been thinking long and hard about this. I am supposed to be a policy expert, but I cannot anymore bring myself to underwrite the accepted notion of what policy is. The 20th century idea of a powerful machine, armed with scientific knowledge and driving society and its economy to some global optimum on behalf of the people seems to me fundamentally flawed. The only way forward I see is policy as local interaction rules. I mean here the word “local” in two senses: one, that they tell you how to interact with your (network) neighbours, not with the global system; and two, that they are locally agreed upon and enforced. Complexity science has taught us how interesting global patterns can emerge from the “right” kind of local interactions. Local interaction rules expand by natural selection: a constellation of individuals who happen to be endowed with a “good” set of rules will prosper and grow, at the expense of groups that don’t. This, I believe, is exactly what powered the rise of the Benedictines: at the time of Benedict, monasticism was already all the rage, and the most influential figure was that of Saint Anthony, an Egyptian anchorite and hermit. But Benedictines had the Rule, and Anthony’s followers did not. System dynamics did the rest.
If the unMonastery is to continue and prosper, working on its version of the Rule is clearly a good idea. Initially we codenamed this idea “unRule”, but I don’t like the associations. In Stephenson’s brilliant Anathem he calls it the Discipline, and that’s better. But I propose to call it Protocol, to recall the notion we have been working with that the Rule itself is a protocol in the software sense of an algorithm that does not serve a specific purpose, but regulates the low-level interaction of pieces of code that can serve a great many purposes. As all interesting artefacts, Protocol should have three conflicting purposes: encourage free, independent thinking and action for good; enable unMonasterians to coordinate and deploy each other quickly as opportunities arise; evolve and adapt (but not too quickly). Who Does The Work Calls The Shots, for example, is there to encourage free and independent thinking, but – as people have noted over the months – does not take care of the coordination issue. This tells you there is a minimum viable size for Protocol, and it is greater than just one rule.
To write a Protocol 1.0, I propose the following program.
- Study the Rule. I have read it a couple of times, but I feel the need to study more in depth.
- Study models of evolution of cooperation we know from complexity science. I am particularly fascinated by the simple algorithms dreamed up by Craig Reynolds and others in the 1980s to produce lifelike flocking behaviour with just three rules (collision avoidance, velocity matching, aiming for the local centre of mass, in this order). We can also draw on Steven Strogatz's and related work on syncing, and even Axelrod's famous tournaments – tit-for-tat is a two-lines protocol for winning the repeated Prisoner's Dilemma tournament!
- Draw on methods from computational biology to simulate society-level consequences of adopting different local-level rules. I recently came across this paper and it knocked me off my feet: it is a totally accessible (which does not mean easy) method to think rigorously about this stuff. You can probably model some of the effects with NetLogo.
- (As always) Release early and often, and iterate.
To deploy Protocol, I propose the following program:
- Test it on iterations of the unMonastery, making its acceptance conditional to admittance. I don't think this qualifies as abuse of power: people would simply be asked to be a part of a social experiment. They would find themselves doing things that they would not otherwise have done for a little while, but that's supposedly the whole point of joining an unMonastery. In passing, note that Benedict wrote "test" periods into the Rule, with novices serving two test periods before they were allowed to make a permanent choice to become monks.
- Encode it in technology as much as possible – knowing that it will never be possible for tech to do all, or even most, of the heavy lifting. At the very least, technology-mediated interactions should have the right affordances (not prevent good things to happen). Here I use "technology" in a generalized sense: a large kitchen is technology – it is in fact ICT, because it provides a communication infrastructure.
- Devise ways to monitor for what works and what does not in Protocol. It could be as simple as surveying unMonasterians and members of the local community: for Edgeryders, online ethnographies are a natural way to do this.
In the spirit of Who Does The Work Calls The Shots I would like to spend a little time in unMonastery Matera myself in July, maybe a week or two. I would spend most of the time on other stuff (including unMonastery-related stuff), but simply by being there I would collect valuable data. I commit to humility and look forward to accepting the humblest duties. I would also support my stay, probably with an in-kind donation. Would that be acceptable?