“In 1968 people like Habermas, Marcuse, and Roszak invited us to see the role of scientific rationality in the maintenance of the existing social order and to examine critically whether that was the role which we wished expertise to play…. On the whole, we failed. … What was just about escapable then seems inescapable now.” — Robert Young, 1984i
The discouragement of those who have been in the trenches of the radical science movement for over half a century is understandable. Accepting defeat is not an option, however. Society without science, and without an effective way to integrate epistemic communities, will always be a society dissociated and easily controlled. Society with integrated scientific and epistemic communities may even yet save itself.
For years, science fiction writers and scientists have been enthralled with the idea of a technological singularity. They have looked forward to a day when technology will be beyond the scope of human understanding and artificial intelligence will be programming itself. Instead, we have reached a societal singularity where no one can understand every aspect of society which affects them We need to collaborate with others to create or develop products and even just to understand the news. We have to put our faith in other people and believe in what they tell us or trust in their skill to create their components. We need to somehow create nuanced and detailed information we can trust and coordinate goals with people we will never speak to.. Our societies are all connected now at some level with all of the other communities in the world, including even uncontacted tribes. This singularity is both unacknowledged and a core part of our societal functioning (and malfunctioning). Not only knowledge based industries but every level of governance depends on our management of communication and trust. The lack of integration between knowledge and the public is crippling our progress.
Representative governance and both the Great Man and the identitarian views of history present all human interaction as personality based. If there are community conflicts, our institutions assume the problem is one of personality management which can be solved by law enforcement. If social issues aren’t addressed, representative democracy assumes a demographic is under represented. Collaboration in a personality based system can only be by authority or consensus. Most workers do not enjoy authoritarian systems as they lose autonomy, mastery and creative control over their own work and rule is by coercion, not choice. Consensus is ideal for small, local, like-minded affinity groups, but it only works in groups of under twenty-five people, preferably two to eight. Consensus is not useful for large scale collaboration or collaboration that is separated by communication barriers or over time.
Neither knowledge based industries nor governance ought to be personality based and neither can operate effectively in that way. The goal of all knowledge industries, including governance, is to stimulate the public to action. The only effective and voluntary large scale method of action based collaboration is stigmergy1 and stigmergic action follows ideas, not personalities. Since knowledge industries want to trigger stigmergic actions, they ought to be focused on ideas.
Currently, knowledge communities act like closed, internationally linked, affinity groups at a level of expertise not accessible to the general public. Affinity groups are personality based and allow expertise to be held by gatekeepers controlling information flow between groups. While local, self-governing, affinity groups should have the ultimate authority of acceptance or rejection of ideas, they all need access to the expertise of international epistemic communities in order to make the choices which are right for them. A structure which allows gatekeepers to control information flow will create both demagogues and an easily manipulated public. Epistemic communities that develop and audit ideas should use transparent and permeable concentric circles to integrate ideas from the epistemic communities directly with the public.
In a governance context this means we won’t be electing personalities, we will be electing ideas. We won’t have representatives for groups of people, we will have concentric circles around ideas.
Academic and scientific journals were created so that everyone would publish and build off of each others findings, guiding stigmergic action. In reality, most research is not open source, it is frequently corporate IP property and it does not allow permissive copyright or even access. Outside contributions and auditing is not rewarded or even allowed. Science and academia are very far from acting as concentric circles integrating ideas with wider society. Their closed communities allow their work to be easily controlled by politicians and industry and very little stigmergic action results from it. Without stigmergy, their progress is not nearly what it could be. Science and academia require knowledge bridges, transparency and free information if they are going to truly act as epistemic communities for us all and stimulate mass action.
Stigmergy is a method of collaboration for mass movements, not organizations. The civil rights movement in the United States was a stigmergic movement which retained its clarity through successive generations because it set specific goals in each cycle, whether that was to end slavery, end segregation, or end police violence. When feminism meant fighting for the vote and legal personhood it also had a clear goal and was also a stigmergic mass movement, but second wave feminism allowed its goals to become very loose. Because there wasn’t a clear goal, second wave feminism was used to advertise corporate product and promote prominent personalities, primarily from the United States, who felt they could speak for every woman in the world on every topic. When feminism stopped following ideas, it stopped being a stigmergic movement and became a competitive, personality driven organization which then became completely divided, as is typical. Personality based organizations do not scale.
Stigmergy is made up of collaborative actions, not identitarian organizations or people. All identity politics results in personality based organizations which is why so many resistance movements, especially in the United States, collapse due to infighting. If mass movements rallied to stop rape, or street executions by police, or contamination of water, they would be very widely supported and unstoppable. Personality based organizations claiming victimhood as the exclusive product of one identity group have succeeded in stopping mass movements around all of these these stigmergic goals.
Stigmergy can scale to an entire population if support for an idea is unanimous and identity politics is not used to drive people away. Because stigmergy follows ideas, ideas are as important in stigmergy as personality management is in organizations. The single biggest factor for whether or not someone will participate in a stigmergic action is whether they are sure of the idea behind it. Whether it affects them, or if its simple to grasp or easy or even safe to do matters very little compared to their belief in the goal. This means the easiest way for someone to prevent action is to sow doubt in the goal. Finding the information we need for conviction in our goals in the collaborative structures we use today is not easy.
Most of the tools we have to help mass communication simulate direct democracy and look for popular ideas, the most shares and the most readers. Not only is popular not innovative or expert, the two are mutually exclusive. Popular ideas are riding the peak of the wave of socially acceptable opinion. They already appeal to the widest audience. They are not new ideas, by definition, and they aren’t at a level of elite expertise that is difficult for all but a few to understand also by definition. This is why we now elect politicians on the basis of their tweets and this is the secret for politicians like Donald Trump who speaks at a grade 3 level.ii The more easily understood and the less challenging the message, the wider its appeal will be. An age that amplifies the most popular information, as we do now, will be an age of demagogues.
It is counter intuitive to think popular ideas are what we need to give us the best information. We need both expert and diverse knowledge. If we want those making the decisions to hear the voices that are seldom heard, that may expand their Overton windows and give us some fresh perspective, or represent a rare case that will cause their solution to break, amplifying the most popular ideas or people is again the exact opposite of what we ought to be doing. This is what direct, representative and liquid democracy do however, so of course it is also what the tools for democracy have been doing. We have tools for voting, tools that are very useful to find out what a population thinks and tools that are great for discussing things in affinity groups and coming to consensus, but we need to also go to where opinions are formed. Opinions are based on information. We need to be able to find expertise and accurate and diverse information that we can trust before we form our opinions and long before we measure them.
Ideas need to be audited and promoted by people qualified to understand them both to allow diversity of ideas and to prevent the process from being dominated by celebrities without the expertise required. If we have an elite discussion group with only elite experts or ideas in it, we are at great risk of having an elite oligarchy based on control of information, like we have now. Concentric circles relate to sound amplification. In a concentric circle, people or ideas promoted to the center by their peer group receive greatest amplification and findings will be audited, amplified and explained to the general public by outer circles. Concentric circles are not hierarchical as they have no direct control over the actions of anyone. An epistemic community is a knowledge resource only. Authority remains with the entire user group which provides a good incentive for the epistemic community to ensure transparency and knowledge bridges so their ideas are accepted. As in stigmergy, votes in a concentric group are frequently replaced by actions. If an idea receives no amplification, it is just an idea that goes nowhere.
“I wonder if the world is full of middle-aged people still waiting for their peers to take in the full range, depth, subtlety, and profundity of their work.” — Robert Youngiii
With knowledge bridges, everyone does not need personal expertise on every aspect of society. As long as there is a transparent concentric circle, everyone can see the activity and get feedback if necessary. If there are a lot of people auditing and a lot of discussion and if the observers trust some of the people in these circles, they can trust the process and the ideas. Everyone can review the work of the experts both directly and through the review by their peers. Experts can also be created by the system itself as users develop knowledge and reputation and move towards the centre. This happens increasingly if users lose trust and they realize they need to start auditing a circle.
The vast majority of scientific and academic work is ignored as the public has no access or understanding and the scientific community has no time to examine everything. With a wider circle of auditors, outside the community of competitive peers, this work would not all be lost. Instead of doctors ignoring their patients for the latest paper from their colleagues or funding from the powerful, knowledge bridges would encourage community driven knowledge and research. Psychologists should not have the sole authority to decide what is normative. Anti-social or social acts should be decided by the society itself. Pharmaceutical industries and medical professionals cannot be allowed to ignore the lived experience of groups such as the Hearing Voices Network and Aphrodite Women’s Health forum. Science, even where it uses isolation, must also be tested as a part of the whole, and even where it relies on peer review, must be fully open to review and contribution by the wider society.
Science will tell us that the population of an isolated community has shrunk 3.5 centimetres in the last century. If they asked the people in the village, they may hear that one man was 5’4” and had 27 children and almost the entire town are now his direct descendants, but in today’s structure they rarely ask. Science will tell us that a woman died of a heart attack. Her village could tell us that she died of a broken heart because her son died. Science tells us how, but without the village, we will never understand why. Science today is not asking the village. They are too busy telling everyone that people can’t die of a broken heart and sneering at superstitious villagers. As Paul Richards outlines in Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, ebola was not being spread by eating wild meat as the international experts claimed. Villagers noticed it was the people who attended funerals who contracted the disease and adjusted their behaviours more effectively on their own. If the international epistemic community studying ebola had been communicating with the local affinity groups dealing with ebola, they all would have been a lot more effective. Instead of providing a one way flow of near useless information, researchers could have been acting as an integrated epistemic community and a valuable resource.
No one is or should be more afraid of the mob, of mob norms and mob decisions, than those outcast on the fringes. For those accepted into the scientific community, it is frequently the first social gathering where they can share their knowledge and interests and the only place they can speak freely with others at their level of knowledge on their topic of interest. If they guard the borders of their nation it is not solely from xenophobia. Without isolation from the public, scientists and other specialists have a very valid fear that they would no longer be permitted to work. The marauding hordes which some fear would overrun science and persecute a scientific minority do pose a very existential threat. With no society which understands their work, scientists would be marginalized, their social approval stolen by demagogues and their work misunderstood or lost. In a larger community, all would demand equal and democratic amplification on topics far beyond their understanding. The wider public will always be resentful of any research support they see as self indulgent and this resentment will be used politically. Particularly where there is no public access or obvious public merit, the public will never willingly fund science or elite knowledge. When information is controlled by demagogues, what is important loses to what is popular.
When left out in isolation, user groups can be as guilty of group narcissism as the scientists they criticize. As psychoanalysts looked to parenting as the cause of scizophrenia and other illnesses as part of their vilification of mothers, feminists seized anorexia nervosa and anorexia bulimia as evidence of the body shaming culture women and girls lived in. The physical areas of investigation such as hypoglycaemia and associated yeast infections and digestive issues were spurned as reams of paper and mainstream media was filled on this far more lucrative and politically satisfying line of inquiry.iv Any scientific finding that endorses popular bias will receive far more media attention, approbation and funding than that which discredits popular bias. Scientific or academic findings which strengthen identitarian groups will be spread and encouraged by those identitarian groups. Even science likes being appreciated and will respond to public acclaim. Wider community influences on science must guard against the biases of scientists, not promote their own. Science and all specialized study requires autonomy from popularity. Complete transparency is required so media does not selectively report and science does not selectively research in response to political pressure.
Any specialist epistemic community cannot produce any work of value if they are expected to be in constant communication with people at a level of understanding far below their own. Neither can they produce work if they are fending off political attacks by demagogues. Communication should not be the full responsibility of experts. The current demand for people in knowledge industries to go on speaking tours, delivering sound bites like performing monkeys, is a waste of their expertise and forced crowd pleasing for survival. Epistemic communities should be allowed to work and to communicate only when they choose, to whom they choose.
While every epistemic community requires a quiet place to discuss work with those at a similar level of understanding, and no expert should be required to submit themselves to the “lol. Fake news.” level of Internet discussion, their work should be both completely transparent and accessible for others to discuss and build on. Their ideas should be carried over expertise bridges by full transparency and user participation. The epistemic community in the centre should not need to protect themselves from demands or attacks from completely uninformed users or demagogues. The circles of expertise which promoted them to the centre should also verify and explain their findings to the outer circles. In addition, the epistemic communities themselves must be completely permeable to anyone with valuable input. It is only by allowing oppositional thought and transparent auditing that expert communities can protect their ideas from being blocked by uninformed demagogues.
Popular instances of political demagogues overthrowing expert recommendations rely on simple sabotage. The opponents to the Colombia peace deal and Brexit had no better alternatives devised, any more than most politicians seeking election have reasonable platforms. Platforms are less and less a focus in elections in any case, as media and public attention is taken over by discrediting attacks instead of alternative solutions. Science cannot be allowed to be discredited by ignorant demagogues. Like free software, existing science should only be opposed by alternative theory which can meet the same standards of scientific rigour. Science cannot prove that vaccinations are safe, so vaccine safety should only be opposed by those who can prove they are not. It is only possible for science to be opposed by worthy rebuttals if it is within the power of everyone to make worthy rebuttals, if their work is also reviewed and they have the access required to audit and investigate.
In open source software, the code for each project is available for all to see. Even if the end user cannot understand the code, they can go to discussion groups or listen to programmers who have read and audited the code, and they can read the bug reports. Any urgent bugs will be broadcast to the general population and amplified by media as we have seen many times. The people with the greater knowledge of the system will provide knowledge bridges for people at a more novice level and increasingly, that is how people are learning to code. Good ideas from forum discussions can be read and possibly implemented by the developers as well. Transparency goes both ways.
Open source software projects with forums open to all are a perfect working example of fully transparent and audited systems of elite knowledge. While the decisions are made by the developers, input, review and acceptance or rejection of the software is the right of the user group. If the developers refuse to listen to the user group and another development team is willing to work on the project, the original code can be forked and modified to meet the user requirements. This means existing ideas can only be opposed by another fully developed, open and transparent epistemic community which also must be audited by knowledge bridges. They can’t be attacked just by demagogues and rhetoric. They can only be opposed by another working solution, so the user group has a choice between two or more working solutions instead of simply rejection or acceptance. This is only possible if the information is free for anyone to use or modify. Ownership of ideas is in complete opposition to both stigmergy and concentric circles, so it is in complete opposition to rapid progress, finding the best solutions and self governance.
The open software movement has driven most technology based fields into a flat and accessible relationship with the public and social media has done the same for journalism. As people become more accustomed to real and participatory news and culture, they will demand the same of science and academia. As science and academia develop their own direct relationships with their user communities, they will be in a position to shun those in industry or politics who refuse to support them or attempt to manipulate them. Politicians and industrialists are not necessary in a fourth age societal structure. Knowledge industries are and it is essential that local affinity groups learn how to communicate and support them directly.
We can never have idea and action based governance without the reliable information provided by fully open, transparent, epistemic communities and knowledge bridges. The ability to create a body of knowledge for review must not be restricted to one class. Access to and ownership of our knowledge must be a human right.
1 Stigmergy is explained in greater detail in both Binding Chaos and Releasing Chaos.
Excerpted from Autonomy, Diversity, Society. Citations will be transferred when I get a minute.
Talk below about societal singularity, stigmergy and concentric circles. (In English)