Culture and communities as systems of practice

Last week, I was at PES college’s Hacktober Fest, speaking to undergraduate computer science students about open source ‘culture’ and the value of participating in ‘communities’. When the invitation first came in, I wondered how I’d stitch the two ideas — culture and communities — together to present a coherent worldview. What could that worldview be?

Over two weeks of thinking, I went back to my social science roots and decided to drive home the point that “culture is practice”. Technology evolves and grows from practice. Every new piece of technology develops in the context of its use and practice. Based on such culture of practice, technologies either become dominant or are marginalized (and there remain political and economic forces that have an interest in maintaining the hegemony of some technologies and their practice). If we understand culture as practice, then the communities we build could be more resilient and vibrant if these were to be based on emerging ideas of practice rather than around personalities — their laurels and their worldview of technology and practice. The latter eventually leads to dominance of individuals and their worldviews, thereby creating toxicity in communities and less space for new ideas.

Let’s break this hypothesis down. If practice is important, then the process of building technology communities is about giving voice and space to new ideas of solving problems (and how technologies were brought into solving problems). If new ideas and new voices get space and visibility in communities, we have created a continuous pipeline (implying flow). This pipelining creates aspiration, in that practitioners who otherwise didn’t find space and voice to share their experiences (and anti-patterns) can find homes in communities of practice. The process of peer review plays an important role here, in that review of practitioners by practitioners helps filter ideas — novel and contrarian — that eventually get voice and visibility.

Students at PES college questioned this hypothesis vehemently:

“Could Apple have been the company that it is if it wasn’t for Steve Jobs?”

“Wasn’t Linus Torvalds instrumental in perpetuating the culture of open source through the creation of Linux?”

The argument underlying these questions was: “how can individuals not be important for communities”? Won’t communities be too fluid (and uncertain) if communities were based on ideas whereas history consistently shows that important technological developments have stemmed from individuals and not from ideas? Are you indeed suggesting that my ideas — as an unknown, invisible student — can find home somewhere and that I can have aspiration too?

I had to put on my thinking cap here because these questions were very important. What was it that I had learned from our experience of building technology communities at HasGeek in the last 9 years? It then struck me that the point that my co-founder, Kiran Jonnalagadda, has been making is moot here: building communities of practice requires deliberate design and precedents to balance the scales between individuals and ideas. Simple rules such as:

  1. You cannot be a peer reviewer if you are not a practitioner (and a practitioner can be anyone, not merely thought leaders).
  2. The community is above the individual. Therefore, we have to design and reinforce codes of conduct for all the parties that come together at events in order to uphold this culture.
  3. Diversity — and increasing the pool of women in our communities — should stem from the culture of peer review and mentorship of good ideas across identities and orientations.

I cited the example of this insightful article on Game of Thrones to explain the dynamics between individuals and ideas/institutions/processes:

In a nutshell, this article talks about human tendencies to create heroes in history. Where the Game of Thrones excelled in the initial seasons was to kill the hero/underdog at the end of each season, leading to uncertainty about which institution will emerge as powerful in the next season. Where the series fell apart in the last two seasons was by investing the narrative in making a hero of the underdog instead of sticking to the design of: ‘there is no hero, there is no villain — just systemic designs’.

This created intrigue and students interrogated this idea further. They took the question to the participation and marginalization of women in technology, and how systemic design of communities can address this. Again, when we go back to history, communities built around heroes/figureheads/ideas of pristine culture are also among those communities where with incidents of abuse of power, including harassment of women, take place most. Recent examples include that of Richard Stallman who abused his position and the communities around him when it came to women. All this was legimitized (and not talked about) because he was the hero of ‘open source’ for a long time (and that the hero could not be the fall guy).

I have written this post to tie together the ideas and discussions at PES College’s Hacktober fest on communities and culture. I tried to present the worldview that practices of groups (of people) get institutionalized and codified over a period of time and that culture stems from practice. Practice as culture can be extended to building communities where systemic design combined with peer review can help in building communities that foster new ideas and diversity.

CEO and co-founder @HasGeek. Long distance runner in every aspect of life. I am building an organization that outlives me.