Why the Commons may not work.

By Brian Ohanlon, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 12 years 17 weeks ago.

"If changes in one small area are too quickly communicated across a system as a whole, they would tend to be dampened out.
New and dissenting ideas need time to accumulate evidence and argument."

Ilya Prigogine, winner of a nobel prize for chemistry.

I can only offer this group, the benefits of my own experience and my own thoughts on cooperation. I have worked in one of the most collaborative environments, you can be in, the design of architecture. The real stuff, not the one made of bits. One of the comments I received recently, had to do with making connections between my writing, and the actual purpose of a cooperation commons web site. So I will avail of this opportunity here and now, to clarify some of my points of view. I hope you will read what I have to say, because I offer this as some cautionary Black Hat advice to people embarking on this voyage into the cooperation commons. All I can say, is listen, if you will.

What you read in the first paragraph of my last blog post, was an example of how massive supply chains, group efforts and collaboration groups can sometimes expel a good worker, or a good idea. Large sophisticated organisms obey their own laws. They can do extraordinary things that individuals could never manage themselves. I love the way the intelligence of Dell's supply chain, manages to somehow solve a very difficult problem with markets. But group intelligence can also react rashly and negatively to individuals. If you are looking for true efficiency, you often will not find it in the large organism.

As new platforms have enabled groups of people to cooperate more easily, many groups have decided they don't need the talent anymore. The trouble with the network, is that accountability gets passed around so quickly, that collective authorship cannot work properly. They all de-value themselves by this need for speed. Often the orchestrator, who should be in the thick of it, helping it to work, is expelled from the group. Kevin Kelly was right, in that you need to relinquish some control. But you do not want to relinquish all of it, I am sure. But this abandonment of responsibility is all too common, I am afraid, in the commons.

Modern education is increasingly evolving around a cut and paste culture. The need for speed fanaticism, is about short term borrowing. Using a future as collateral, to pay for miserable gains in the present. You can dress this up in nice clothes, and call it cooperation, or the commons, or whatever. But at the end of the day, the dangers are real.

"In this day and age, it is the innovators that take the brunt of prejudice.
Black hat, rational, spreadsheet competence is most valued in the market at large."

The poster here wrote:


Indeed, their are problems with our system of accounting, with valuing the knowledge wealth created within an organisation. I commented about his, to clay shirky's post here:


Jaron Lanier offers us his insight:

"It's almost a postmodern form of suicide. The motivations are easy to understand. There's death denial. People die but computers and crowds, maybe, don't. And there's liability avoidance. As an individual, you have to be responsible. As a member of a crowd - or a user of information systems - you're not responsible anymore."

The quote was taken from here:


We have witnessed this loss of accountability, during the Enron melt down. A kind of situation, where the leaders lose all control. Nick Carr calls it the loss of context, the loss of the author, the loss of an editorial voice.

"...a kind of cultural deafness, and that's a frightening prospect, at least to some of us."


John Thackara says that fountain pens are back in fashion again. He talks a lot about selective slowness, in his book, in the bubble. We are building our information systems based around the notion of speed. Here is a quote from Hitachi, "speed is god, time is the devil". But we have no time to reflect on decision making anymore. Similar arguments could be made against, books like The Power of Now, which seem to captivate business people around the world at the moment. But it is hard to do, to make people stop and think, when we live in this always on kind of world, of mobile phone commercials showing successful people doing business deals in real time, while on the move.

I always remind myself what Mies van der Rohe, said to his student at MIT. The architect taught his students to understand the building through the weight of the lines you draw on the paper with your pencil. He thought his students to look at their own drawings. Often he would sit for a whole hour, staring at a students drawing. When finished peering at the drawing, he would just stand up and walk away without saying a word. I try to build, this slowness into my system of design, and guess what, inevitably, it results in a better design, at the end. Which encounters less bumps in the road, because you have a model of what you are doing in your head, as well as in the computer. I always compare it to Bjorn Borg, the tennis player, who couldn't hit the tennis ball for his first couple of matches at Wimbledon. He would get progressively better as the tournament progressed. He wasn't a natural grass court player, he preferred clay. He was allowed to practice though, every evening. To get a feel for the grass court. The great Dutch Architect, Herman Hertzberger spoke about the problem of architectural students in university and work today. They are so efficient he said, using Photoshop and other applications. Herman said, the young architectural minds, find form first and then search for meaning. Herman said, he tries desperately, to find meaning and then search for form. Herman also admitted, he was very alone in this today. The system today rewards the efficient copy and paste crews.

All comments, as always, are much appreciated.