The quest for Protocol 1.0: testing unMonastic life myself?

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.

  1. Study the Rule. I have read it a couple of times, but I feel the need to study more in depth.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. (As always) Release early and often, and iterate.

To deploy Protocol, I propose the following program:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

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sounds interesting!

I need to read it once again to get clearer idea of what you proposing!

Reading that you want to stay in Matera and experiment on yourself gives it much more significance in my eyes! Not sure thought if choosing last weeks of Pilot session operations makes the best fit. I assume that everyone may stay busy then with wrapping up all the work and securing continuity of some local developments. Probably those who still plan to stay in Matera that time can chime in here…


@Alberto Cottica only 3-4 people stay here next two days and then 7 from thursday night. I’ve heard that you visit Matera and thought about inviting you to stay with us :slight_smile:


Let’s try, even though I did not know about this and made a hotel reservation. Tonight I will get to Matera quite late. Does anyone have an Italian mobile? How late can I call?

Tomorrow it is easier.

mobile nr

you can find our mobile nr at:

i’ll have it with me today, call any time since i really have no problems with just falling back asleep after waking up :wink:

Thoughts and Clarifications

Firstly please forgive the delay in my response; things as you know were a little turbulent and then I had to take some time out from unMonastery. I’ve been mulling over this post though during the time that past and have been carrying The Rule around with me and reflecting on it contents regularly. It truely is a remarkable document - particularly given it’s directness in communicating the daily rhythm of the monastery as an organisational form.

So I very much welcome the proposal to begin work on consolidating the knowledge and practices we’ve developed throughout our time in Matera. I do though have some trepidation. Initially the timing, I had discussed with @arthurD whilst he was here the need to schedule a week long debrief and decanting of knowledge after we wind down the initial prototype - away from Matera, so that we might gain some perspective in a neutral space. In July my fear would be that there simply won’t be enough people with the insight needed to produce this document authenticately and reliably; i.e @kei @crisitiano siri and @pavlik elf @lucia will not be present at all.

My second concern is authorship and I guess this is where I’d seek clarity, I sit for the most part on the side of anonymity as a tool for spreading knowledge. The ideas that I believe travel furthest in this moment are not ones asigned to individuals but pseudonyms and this comes through the experience of publishing almost everything I have done personally and as a group under alternative non-attributable names. Good contemporary examples of spreading ideas like this are things like anonymous and Luther Blissett.

I’m not suggesting we necessarily invent a new identity for the publication of such a document (although I do like the idea) but I wonder given the historical analog, that this document literally gives rise to an entire order - the benedictines -  what attribution for such a publication by the unMonastery would look like?

This said, on a practical note what dates were you thinking?

Just a first step

No panic, Ben. I am not planning to look for consensus, just carry out my own research into Protocol. I use some pre-alpha version of Protocol for everything I do, most notably lately Edgeryders. The unMonastery movement has no obligation whatsoever to pay attention to what I (or anyone else, really) think is “good” interaction protocol; you guys are free to ignore it, or to work on it in your own time, and most definitely to fork it. I am just doing some scribbling around. Even if everyone was super-enthusiastic about my ideas, I would be the first one to recommend caution.

What I would really, really like is make a stab at a computational method to test bits of protocol. Take a candidate rule, for example “Who does the work cllas the shot” and see if you can meaningfully encode it into a NetLogo model, using these nifty tricks from computational biology that you see demoed so effectively in the paper I linked in my original post. That would be a “meta-Protocol”, because it gives you a systematic way to think about how to make protocol.

I have used different translations for the Rule that I found lying around the web. In later iterations I made a point of always reading the Latin original (I do read Latin, though I am a bit rusty. The Rule is in late Latin, as opposed to the classic Latin normally taught in Italian high schools, but I could understand it even without a translation, just with the help of a dictionary. I might even make a “hacker translation” myself).

I was thinking probably around the central weeks of July. I also have a surprise for you: the mayor of Nursia has seen my RNext video and invited me over. Apparently Nursia now has a very active Benedictine monastery, revitalized by a charismatic American prior and full of young monks. He is up for organizing a visit, in which we may ask for the man’s time to share his experience of living under the Rule. July 9th is St. Benedict’s day. Are you game, @Ben

Crucial Question

Which translation have you been reading from?

Cool! My background is on computational biology. Lately, I have been distracted from the necessity to work for food, but I have a couple of secret (humble) personal projects on the subject. Nothing similar to the paper you linked above (but I used to read a lot of similar papers). I am fascinated by the relations between locality and computation. Some rambling thoughts and others here I wrote some years ago (sorry for the unreadable latex, missing pictures and broken links, I made a mess exporting previous wordpress content). What you have in mind is very challenging and requires a lot of math/computational ingenuity. Anyway, the idea to encode in a programming language a Latin text is something worth trying!

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It would be fun to try it together

The paper in question, @mstn, has tractable math because it starts with barebones-simple payoff matrices that still preserve some meaning. If we can do that, the rest is… coding. Not easy, but doable. Would you be interested to work on this with me?

Following up our discussion on fb, I’d like to give a contribution to this project (@elf, do not worry, untransit has priority!).

I agree with you: the math/programming is not difficult. I was talking about modelling the Protocol in a formal way. However, I do not know the Rule/Protocol and I am very curious to know if you already have any ideas on how to encode the Protocol into the framework described in the paper.

I do not know NetLogo. If I am not wrong, it is the modelling language used in the online courses organized by SFI. I followed a couple of lectures last year. However, what if we use Javascript? Javascript shouldn’t be fast with array operations (i.e. arrays are dynamic if you do not use Typed Arrays) and does not have a lot of math libraries (numericjs seems the best one). However, I do not feel it is a big issue for the kind of modelling we are going to tackle. The big plus for js is that it has the best user interface declarative language on the market (i.e. HTML), it is very widespread and there are a lot of cool tools for data visualization (d3.js, raphael.js). A web page where you can move knobs to set parameters and see the result in real time is quite easy to do in js/html and very impressive.

About my availability. Untransit has priority. I am going to finish it in these weeks (between June and July). From July, I am busy, but I am able to find time for this thing.

Might be useful.

Came across a post this morning looking at “morality” measures of reputation-based factions. (The IPD simulation is on github here.)

The most relevant merit, I think, from the discussed eigendemocracy would be its ability to illustrate more than one moral consensus. In the case of climate change, one could see the case of multiple moral realities—climate change deniers would be illustrated as a small, closed-trust circle and their “undue” level of influence more apparent.

Of course this could go either way morally, and presents its own problems, but it’s an interesting complement to the discussion of advantageous ideological protocol.

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Very nice

Thank you, @Kei, the post is really enjoyable.

But I don’t think I dare to thread those waters. I prefer to build tools that allow me to look at what-if scenarios. Specifically, I am interested in the question whether certain conventions that could make us better collaborators (say: writing good documentation, or refraining from using rhetorical tricks on each other) are self-enforcing. The computational biology framework can give you answers like: if you get the proportion of good cooperators above a threshold, it the convention becomes self-enforcing and the system moves towards a higher level of cooperation (therefore efficiency etc.). In this scenario, it is conceivable that the unMonastery as an institution, with its undoubtable narrative power, can help nudge us over that threshold. Only conventions that are “sustainable” in this sense would be admitted into Protocol.

You will guess where I am going with this: I would like edgeryders and unMonasterians to be the best collaborators on the planet. I am shifting the point of view, considering collaboration not as a matter of tools (like @Pavlik elf prefers to do), but rather as a matter of skills and values. Of course elf’s point is perfectly legitimate and I share it too, it’s just that I want to pay attention at the human part of the human-tech gestalt.