Spider’s webs are their brains

Western science recently figured out that spider’s webs are kind of like extended, out-of-body brains.

Spiders tighten and loosen specific parts of their webs to become more attuned to vibrations, and they can tell the difference between, say, a fly moving around or the wind or other creatures buzzing. This makes sense, as arachnids have been evolving these webs for who knows how many millions of years.

Seeing the spider and web as one and inseparable challenges the ideas we’ve learned about separateness: that there is a spider that is separate from their web. But without a web, the spider couldn’t survive. The spider can’t exist as a disconnected individual.

While this is magical in and of itself, it is also a metaphor for something I’ve been wondering about in networks for a while: how do we embed sensitivity in networks? Rather than thinking about it in a more narrow and mainstream idea of “communications,” how can we think about our activities in networks as sensing? This would have to go hand-in-hand with our work to distribute and decentralize networks – we don’t want to repeat the hierarchical structures of organizations, where only the hubs “hear” about what’s going on – we want to increase access to this hearing/sensing.

We could metaphorically peer into one thread within the network, listen in on what’s happening there. Then put one of our eight arms on another thread and see what’s going on over there. Doing so we are better informed and able to act more strategically – in alignment and harmony – with what is happening elsewhere in the network.

Technology as “tequio”

This post is a short summary of Yasnaya Elena Aguilar Gil’s essay “Una propuesta modesta para salvar al mundo,” translated into English as “A modest proposal to save the world.” (The original version is in Spanish.)

Adapting technology to suit a new context is not a new practice. However, adapting tech to support collective, rather than capitalist outcomes, may be able to help us move out of some of the pervasive problems inherent in development paradigms.

“Tequio has also become a strategy for meeting everyday needs. Just as the modern-day technology of free, open-source code has enabled collective progress in the digital sphere, the communal labor of tequio raises the possibility of resistance in Abya Yala — and survival of the world at large.”

Technologies have been adapted in Abya Yala, an indigenous name for what’s now called “Latin America,” to serve diverse needs like language preservation and distributed ownership of cellular phone/internet networks.

These needs are a response to colonization and capitalism. Many rural and/or indigenous populations have never been given access to these increasingly necessary forms of communication, so now they are reclaiming and grounding this tech in the own communities. More neutrally called “digital divides,” this unpoliticized and academic understanding points to inequitable gaps in access to and use of online spaces and tools. Aguilar Gil’s essay suggests that these gaps can be bridged by going back to roots of collective and cooperative practices embedded in many indigenous communities:

There is a serendipitous affinity between the logic of collective effort and free cooperation that defines open-source software like Linux and the philosophy of many indigenous communities who built structures to survive the harshness of colonial rule. Both rely on mutual support and small-scale, community-level labor linked into a circuit of larger tasks. Such tequio is an essential “social technology” common across Abya Yala.

This is a continuation of what we might call “self-organizing” – appropriating capitalist/colonial tools to suit decolonizing contexts. Although not necessarily designed as such, tech tools can be used to create spaces for collaboration, cooperation, and community. This happens through a reclaiming – a reclaiming of the intentions and goals from a capitalist, profit-centered model to one that benefits communities.

Rhizome Assumptions and Outstanding/Guiding Questions

I just had a great conversation with June Holley (Network Weaver) and Emil Vincentz (Acter) about the Acter platform and how it might connect with Rhizome, the platform I’ve been working on.  One of the things that came of it is that I realized I haven’t written much about my assumptions yet that undergird the work I’ve been doing on Rhizome.  So, thanks to that convo, here are most of the assumptions I’ve been using.  I’d love to hear your thoughts – whether you agree or if you hold different assumptions.

Countless (hundreds of?) similar platforms have been created before and have failed: we must design in a different way.

  • They’ve failed because they:
    • are proprietary (not open source),
    • have heavy gate-keeping (usually include only one closed network),
    • are not based in co-design (do not question assumptions together),
    • overestimate the role of technology in solving the problem (over-focus on technology),
    • are not nimble enough to support learning given so many unanswered questions (over-invested in technology and therefore rigid),
    • do not consider questions of the cultural change called for by [systems change].
  • Therefore a better approach would be: open source, cross-network, co-designed, embedded in network activities, and promote distinct cultural rules:
    • Open source or developed more openly, not only represents alternative culture, but also promotes collaboration on the platform itself.
    • Cross-network: what is learned in one network can be applied to other networks – mutual benefit.
    • Co-designed: embrace with humility what we do not know yet.  Do not assume that technology will solve the problems of collaboration or of the lack of systems change, rather share and ask questions of actual users who are jointly moving toward self-organizing.
    • Embedded in network activities: technology is not separate from or prescriptive of how people should behave.  Rather than technology leading engagement, engagement leads technology.
    • Culture: see culture section for more details, but also that the technology should have these cultural rules embedded in its design.

The “non-technical” pieces of a platform are much more important than the technical, especially in this phase of learning together.  A shared technology platform can also be the platform for conversations about these activities – this may be the true promise of the tech/communications platform.

  • Non-technical pieces include culture, learning, governance, network engagement, self-organizing practices, systems transformation. 
  • This is really the bulk of the work – practicing these things together.  The promise of a cross-network platform which asks similar questions on these topics in a diverse set of networks lets us learn faster together.
  • We can apply co-design principles to those activities.  We can use a tech platform to spark conversations, especially when we are clear about how we see that the platform is lacking.

Cultivating a shared network culture is (may be?) necessary to *feel* like we’re moving together.

  • Culture is a broad container that includes, at least: our behaviors that create and sustain relationships, our visions and worldviews, how we talk about and understand issues, and our diverse contexts – across, past, present, and future. 
  • If we are not explicit about the cultures that we are creating, we will inevitably fall back into patterns from dominating, oppressive systems (white supremacy, cis- hetero- patriarchy, colonial mentalities, etc.)
  • We should seek to be explicit about our shared assumptions: of how we want to be in relationship with each other, about where we disagree, where we’re still learning, and about where we are moving together.  If we are not explicit about these things, we may be acting together based on assumptions that are incorrect.
  • How do we feel that we’re moving together, that we’re on the same page, that we’re wanting to move toward a shared horizon/vision?
  • Part of this is being clear about what we don’t want.  We don’t want white supremacy culture to govern our groups – so we learn about what that means and practice ways to interrupt it when it inevitably shows up.  We don’t blame each other for having internalized these ways of being, rather, we see them as something we’re all learning to move out of. 
  • We also don’t want to continue to perpetuate siloed, competitive, and organizational-centered thinking/being.  So: we share what we’re working on freely when there is trust, we seek to re-integrate, re-connect, and look for synergies across perceived silos.
  • Other cultural aspects that might be worth questioning in this work:
    • How do we understand scale?  Movement Generation’s “translocal autonomous organizing”
    • See below, but what is our relationship to dominating systems?
    • What do we hide and what do we share?  Do we hide our failures?  Do we hide how money is allocated?  Are we ok with these things?
    • How do we understand our individual actions in relation to the systems change we seek?  Do we act in a way that suggests “we are the change we want to see?”

Within many networks, our theory of change in relation to systems is foggy at best.  Similarly, self-organizing has not been practiced in a way that has led it to become natural to us or embodied.

  • Some networks are more explicitly “transformative.”  Leadership I’ve seen in relation to systems comes from:
    • Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s Block, Build, Be
    • Movement Generation’s making alternatives so irresistable idea
    • Gender non-conforming and trans- individuals: @alokvmenon, @thejefferymarsh
    • Black and Afro futurism
    • Indigenous land back efforts, movement, and visioning
  • Most of these are acting outside of dominant systems (capitalism, gender binary, colonialism, racism), which is to say they do not follow the same rules that govern the dominant system, and from within it may be illegible.  The people who are least likely to reify dominant systems are those most marginalized “within” those systems.  (“Within” is in quotes because it is likely that the dominating system wants to include these people, but these people do not necessarily want to be included; they may see themselves in other systems.)
  • It is a major barrier that we have not gotten more explicit about our relationship to the system within network weaving work.  Do we want to change it, shift it, destroy it?  Do we want to create a new system that could serve some similar purposes?  Do we want to help articulate and support efforts that are already happening in parallel to the existing system?
  • Further, most of us are unclear what the practice(s) of self-organizing is/are.  Though we may see it as aspirational, we are still fumbling with how to do it, and we aren’t necessarily learning together from our experiments.

Trust is only required as an entry point for certain types of relationships – or, we overestimate the role of person-to-person trust in seeding relationships.

  • For more transactional relationships, trust is less needed than, for example, beginning a long-term collaboration.
  • Part of how we understand trust is through understanding the relationship someone we trust has with someone else.  “Strength of weak ties” theory.
  • Perhaps, there is a person-to-network contextual kind of trust that can serve as fertile ground for new relationships. Think about networking at a conference: we know we’re both interested in the same topic and even though I don’t know you, there is trust because of our shared presence.
  • Or alternatively, we could trust the process. I wrote a blog post in 2016 justifying this in the context of next economy work. That context – one that includes a lot of unknowns and a lot of places where we know we want to move away from – is a good place to try out focusing on a shared process as we transition.

Network maps are most useful for a specific type of user.  Other ways to understand the ecosystem (“see the network”) are needed for other user roles.

  • I propose 3 user roles: network strategist, network weaver, and network member.  One person may play multiple roles.  Network maps are most useful to the first two roles and may be a distraction to the third.
  • Network maps can support an evaluation-based understanding of the network, often held by funders and other people in the role of holding a strategic vision of the network.
  • Network maps can support network weaving.  (Read June’s book.)
  • The majority of network members are looking for specific things (a person with a specific skillset, a particular resource, an organization located in a certain city).  Because of this, network maps are often overkill, providing way too much information and in a way that is not easily digestible or actionable.
    • Furthermore, an outstanding question is: how these types of network members want to understand what’s happening in the ecosystem/network, or, what alternatives to network maps exist that can help us see the network as a whole?
      • Is it like a Twitter feed with trending topics?  Is it a huge dashboard of all activities, in long-form like we often see in Slack?  Or receiving less frequent email-based curated newsletter with network-wide updates?  How do we not inundate people with a fire-hose of information but rather offer them what they’re most likely looking for: do we rely on an algorithm for this, and/or do we make it possible for them to do targeted searches?
  • A major design assumption is to consider these 3 roles as based on the same dataset but looking at it from different perspectives: whole-network maps, sub-group network map (ex. based on an interest, a geographic location), a directory with search capability.

Governance and learning require transparency for networks to thrive.

  • Integrating these two aspects alongside with other network activities challenge dominant narratives of privileged government and hiding failures.
  • Shared governance is being practiced through many emerging forms: civic governance, new forms of democracy, consent-based decision making, advice based/circles/sociocracy, etc.  We are learning about sharing decision-making roles and making decisions more accessible to more people.
  • As we learn about the possibilities represented by networks for the creation of new systems, sharing what questions we’re asking, what we’re learning, what we’ve tried and failed, etc. is important for us to iterate faster.  Dominant narratives of success and perfectionism can be major barriers to communicating about these things, as well as how these dynamics have been connected to receiving (more) funding.
  • Both governance and learning happen in networks, however, if they happen in secret, they can be susceptible to old forms – governance happening behind closed doors and not representing the full network, learning in a way that showcases outcome and not process, hiding what’s seen as failures.