The Common Interest

Here is an article by my co-author/co-editor of the “Open Collaboration Encyclopedia” Alden Bevington. It appears in “Open Collaboration Journal Issue 1”

THE COMMON INTEREST : the transparent ground of an open stakeholder model
by  Alden Bevington

Bob Dylan, a fountain of essential and sincere statements regardless of what you think of his voice, has somewhere in his vast repertoire the words “Help me with my weakness”. Sounds like a simple thing to say. At first glance…

When we ask for help, specifically in a project or organization, we open up the ownership field. If we’re not paying someone to collaborate under our thumb, we’re opening up the hierarchical field. If we had a solid fail-safe plan for success, or so we thought, and we ask for this help we’re opening up a field of emergence. If we’re on the stage, and we ask for this help, the whole relationship with the crowd changes, the star looks a bit more human. A certain ‘power over’, one of the driving forces of the non-collaborative mind (with all due respects to what that mind can get accomplished), is crippled by these conditions of asking for help with its weaknesses.

That particular ‘power-over’ as a trump-all incentive is the foundation of many modern and not-so-modern economic and social assumptions, which come to their roots in philosophies and observations of human nature. In terms of production and innovation, and resource acquisition and consolidation (note i do not say generation), I would venture to say that with few exceptions, this ‘power-over’ driver as a basic incentive has proven to be true, and apparently worth harnessing.

In terms of efficiency, sustainability, and effect on whole-system coherence, I would similarly venture to say that this incentive acting alone may be more like a drug than a nutrient. A drug offering short-term predictable, and localized, ‘positive’ effect, while ‘externalizing’ costs, and its attendant long-term destabilization of whole-system coherency and viability.

As Julia Butterfly Hill, this week celebrating the 10 year anniversary of her historic 3 year sit in Luna the redwood tree, says, in reality we can’t actually externalize costs or ‘throw things away’. “There is no away,” she kindly reminds us.

Speaking of reminding… the point of this article, I remind you and myself, is to investigate how inefficiency in a system is compounded by not asking for help with our known weaknesses, and more deeply why on earth anyone, or any project, or any economy for that matter, wouldn’t transparently ask for help with their weaknesses.

In any system, efficiency, and perhaps even sustainability, appears directly proportionate to the degree of transparency of known issues to all collaborators/stakeholders, and to the degree of opt-in responsibility for picking up the slack for the collective goal of project success.

About transparency in an Open Collaboration:

In a value-driven open collaborative project, such as one governing a common property, participants are incentivized to be transparent in their known issues, not only because they expect that someone else with more expertise will be able to pick up the slack and fix the problem, thus sustaining the resource that they too have an interest/share in, but also because the usual negative incentives are not present, mainly that hierarchical position, ownership status, a facade of star-quality (which relies to a degree upon non-transparency), and resource acquisition capacity will not be affected adversely.

Transparency can feel safe in an environment where those who are being shared with share the same goals, and thus are disincentivized to exploiting the ‘weakness’ for non-whole-system (or even predicted trickle-down) gain.

In such an environment based on commons, transparency leads to opt-in responsibility for problem fixes by common owners based on shared goals. It doesn’t matter if this opt-in responsibility is selfish or altruistic to get the job done.

About transparency in a closed-stakeholder model:

But opt-in responsibility is very different  creature from the ‘pick up the slack’ that happens when two owned-hierarchical systems collide, or more notably for this era of the privatization of the commons, when non-owned and owned systems collide, especially when relatively non-owned systems, such as a national bank or a property-in-common, are leased for profit, or even bailed out for profit by an owned system such as a share-holder corporation or an investment bank, as we’ve seen in Greece recently (Jan. 2010). The events in Greece were the paragon of what we’re talking about here, with non-transparency driven by political face saving (threat to individual hierarchal position) leading to a backroom privatized government bailout. The maintained opacity of this fact to stakeholders, the Greek people and even Europe’s central bank, led to the dissolution of accurate feedback loops, then leading to system failure. Ripples rippled throughout all other members of its larger economic system.

Now the Greek government is faced with another choice, and so is the European Currency Zone of which it is a part of. The Greek nation needs influx of money to pay its debts, but has two obvious possible routes. On one side they have their “peers”, the member states of the EU. The nations of the EU hold an interest in the solvency of Greece as they have a shared ‘common’, their currency and economy (and therefore destiny). If Greece defaults on its loans, it negatively effects the value of the Euro and thus the entire EU. This is an example, to a degree, of the open-stakeholder model.
On the other side, Greece could turn to the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, based in Washington D.C. The IMF is in a sense a third party, extra-governmental organization which provides substantial debt relief to nations, and under very specific terms. It is an example, to a degree, of the closed-stakeholder model.
The motivations of these two potential bailer-outers are quite different, due to them both having a different sense of the ‘commons’ with Greece. Both would have conditions placed upon Greece to adjust its spending practices and its economy, but the conditions, due to that sense of ‘commons’ would be different.
The IMF for instance consistently has mandated that recipients of its funds, most commonly developing nations and including close to two dozen dictatorships, would sell as much of the ‘commons’ as possible to private enterprise, usually western corporate entities. Through not having a palpable ‘commons’, or shared interest (and apparent shared destiny) with the people whom it is bailing out, the conditions for receiving aid given by the IMF tend towards supporting goals that are not always in the best interest of the nation. If Greece goes bust under IMF debt, what the IMF holds of value is not threatened. In fact through hedges it is, through the questionable magic of the modern financial markets, strengthened by its debt holders going into more debt. It thrives on insolvency, or anything under duress it can buy up at a bargain and sell at a profit. This is a primary engine of capitalism.
The EU however holds values and resources in ‘common’ with Greece. They are stakeholders in an open-stakeholder zone, fully interlinked, and thus by lifting Greece up, Europe saves its own skin. For Greece to open to an EU central bank bailout will be likely to get more favorable terms, however unpleasant, than an IMF bailout for these reasons. Further, an IMF bailout would decrease the EU’s currency strength due to the perception that it can’t solve its own problems, and additionally allow a private stakeholder with a set of motivations/ethics that is not based on the ‘commons’, pulling the strings to its advantage in a system of ‘commons’. Naturally the EU doesn’t want any of that. And in what I consider bad taste, Greece has used the possibility of the IMF getting involved as a trump card to try to get a better deal from the EU.
There are also political dramas being played out, around the French President and the IMF President, two leading contenders in the French political scene. We should accept that these mechanizations due actually affect policy and the lives of millions. The value of de-incentivising power-over becomes even more clear.
The essence of open and closed stakeholder bailout conditions are lain bare through the basic mechanisms of the whole Greek metamorphosis, from the initial budget opacities fueled by politicians wanting to save face, to the wrangling over who will own the debt, under what conditions, what is their motivation, and importantly how will it effect the Greek people and the world. Germans are marching in the streets over it. Greeks are too. Essential issues of shared responsibility and the common destiny are being faced in the foum.
I imagine it will be studied for its lessons and data for years to come, as we continue to assess the steady privatization of the commons, and the roles, rules and tools which we either condone or discredit, of the finance oligarchy.
The Greeks were always good at archetypal tragedies, and they’ve done it again, in a very educational way for us all…

That’s the only value I see in it, otherwise it translates to hard times for millions of people. Nevertheless, it is a useful study. No wonder why people and organizations in the current environment are afraid of asking for help with their weaknesses…

Asking for help with our weakness whether we are an individual, business, or country, and supporting each other to learn to recognize them, is not opening to a personal critique, especially within a non-predatory ‘power-over’ environment, it rather is the way the way that we can get a real example of how we fill each other in. It is what we don’t have that connects us to the people.

This transparency is a key step in setting the ground for symbiotic relationship, which is arguably the key efficiency driver of evolution along with autopoetic self-organization. Don’t let your ego create a bottleneck in the project’s progress because you’re afraid to be transparent for the fear that in that process some of your ‘power-over’ privileges might be diminished, whether they be ownership, hierarchy, star-quality, resource acquisition, get-the-babe, or whatever. But do make sure you have good agreements, and a common ground and goal with those you are being transparent with. Open to your allies, not those who would exploit you because they are incapable at that moment of recognizing the commons. This world still is, economically and politically, the Wild West. But with strong foundations, an open collaborative venture can improve the lives of all of its stakeholders, and give them something vital and important to engage their unique capacities and genius in.

Don’t get pushed around…
Asserting and restoring accurate reference points in the dialogue:

For many it will take a ‘I need to see it to believe it’ approach to consider what I’m about to say, (and perhaps what I have said already, in which case I say read it again, then look back out at the world).

I assert, and this is not really news, that the deep human instinct for ‘power-over’ with its progeny of negative (not natural) hierarchy, coerced ownership at the expense of the commons, and ossified non-responsive self-aggrandizing top-down control, with their progeny, in turn, of non-transparency, systemic imbalance, privatization of the commons, and cost externalization are not efficiency or sustainability measures in and of themselves, and if so only on an incredibly limited scope in a large whole system.

Further, it does seem likely that there is somehow a way to harness this ‘power-over’ instinct as an incentive towards furthering the commons while at the same time tempering it with enough context to offset its more dangerous tendencies. I only have intimations regarding this. I imagine that an openly collaborative project studying how this might be accomplished might be a fitting way to discover a solution to this issue.

I also and finally assert that if you are one to insist that humans are incorrigibly self-oriented, then the sensations of fulfillment that comes from stepping aside, being transparent, asking for help with our weaknesses (and in the process you’ll be acknowledged for your strengths), and opening to the processes of an open collaboration which becomes larger than oneself, is a much finer and more delicious fare than the fast food of ‘power-over’.

But if the only way to believe it is to taste it, then I suggest a place to begin is to substitute the word ‘we’ for ‘me’, and expand the concept. Then when settled in a bit more, and then a bit more, act, intelligently, with others who have done the same.

I call this first step ‘flipping your ‘M’.

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