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Deep Trust, Shallow Trust, and Phyles

photo of Kevin Carson

Kevin Carson
12th January 2012


A recent exchange between Venessa Miemis inspired me to add a section to the chapter on phyles and other networked economic platforms, in my Desktop Regulatory State manuscript:

The Value of the Phyle as Opposed to Other Models of Collaboration

Venessa Miemis, a scholar who specializes in questions of networked collaboration, in early 2010 experienced a personal epiphany (in her words a “snowcrash”) on the significance of networks as the wave of the future.

All this time, I was thinking way too big, trying to understand how to change the world. I kept asking myself, “but how do we leverage networks?”

We don’t.

We ARE the network. Networks self-organize. We only have to leverage ourselves, and the infrastructure gets built.

Each one of us has to create our own ecosystem of relationships that will be beneficial to us personally. We’ll all have some relationships that overlap, but none of us will have the exact same set. The point is that we want to build trust so that when we need help we know who we can access to help us.

Now imagine, if you’re a entrepreneur, or an organization, or a non-profit, or a corporation, and you understand this message and spread it to each and every one of your employees. What happens when your entire organization of people, as a unit, is a network in itself, but each person also has their personal networks of relationships to draw on, which extend beyond the organization?

You then have an INCREDIBLE competitive advantage. (Yeah, there can still be ‘competition’ in a collaborative society, it’s just different, because it’s based on trust.)

Your organization becomes agile. It becomes a learning network, where every person has access to information that can be shared, interpreted, and implemented. You’ll be able to identify weak signals faster, come up with solutions faster, and adapt to change faster.

The world will keep moving. It’s accelerating at an accelerating rate. The ONLY WAY to deal with it is not to cling to the old hierarchies and silos and pride and egos. We have to understand that we can only deal with this as a fully connected system.

And the really crazy part is: we already have everything we need to make this happen. It’s already in place.

All that needs to change is the mindset.

Let me repeat:

All that needs to change is the mindset.

So how are we going to fix everything?

I have absolutely no idea. That’s kind of the point. None of us do, individually, or even as groups. The system needs to be interwoven first, and then we’ll collectively know how to figure it out. We’ll be flexible, adaptive, and intelligent, because we’ll be able to quickly and freely allocate resources where they’re needed in order to make change.

The first step is to build our networks.

This all hit me like a bolt of lightening, a pattern that emerged out of all the complex information.

It’s an option that seems not only possible, but preferable, and comes with a plan that’s implementable immediately.

I thought that made this an idea worth spreading.

Two years later, she complained of the slow pace at which networks were actually taking off.  The  transaction costs entailed in setting up stable trust networks are a lot higher than those for establishing connections.

Fast forward 18 months or so, and I find myself embedded within overlapping networks of networks…. and yet I still don’t see the magic happening that had appeared so clearly in my mind.

What’s the deal?

I chuckle now looking back at my own starry-eyed naivete, as if it were enough to just be connected. I’m reminded of something Stowe Boyd said when I interviewed him for the Future of Facebook Project:

There’s no natural reason that we’re all gonna come together and sing kumbaya just because we’re using the same social tools.

So, yeah. It’s not the technology, it’s about us.

We’ve been through the binding phase over the past few years, which was all about getting linked. We delighted in relatively low risk interaction and sharing, finding our tribes, forming communities of mutual interest and learning. And it’s been wonderful. The connection phase was great. It has transformed me.

But now we’re moving into the collaboration phase, and there are some different requirements.

The next few years are going to be defined by a culture of learning and interactivity that involves more trust, and so naturally, more risk. If we’re going to go beyond just sharing links with each other to actually *helping* each other, working together, experimenting, prototyping, and adapting to changing circumstances, *we* have to first change in order to make that possible….

Each of us is a free agent, delicately riding the edge of chaos and uncertainty as we try to pave our own path. Each of us likes the sound of a peer-to-peer culture, a transition from scarcity to abundance, a move from a transactional economy to a relational economy (ht jerry michalski), and a redefinition of value and wealth. Each of us sees the promise of a new way of working, living, and Being.

And yet there is still fear.

Are you gonna steal my idea? Are you gonna follow through with your commitments? Are you gonna take the credit? Am I gonna get screwed — yet again?

My question to you is: How do we transcend this, surrender, and take the next leap of faith?…

For me, it all comes down to trust.

Not just blind trust in everyone else, but trust in myself and a commitment to move past fear and into action. Lead by example and seewho wants to come with me. Become aware of who I’m connected to and choosing carefully with whom I want to build things. Take small risks together so we can gain momentum. Start having some Collective Epic Wins.

It’s not a process I think can be done “safely.” Meaning, you can’t really half-ass it with one foot outside the door. Like Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

I’ve been doing it. It’s scary. I’ve been let down and disappointed several times. I know I’ve let down and disappointed others as well.

But I’m learning, I’m growing and unfolding as a human being, and I’m building a depth in my relationships that is simply not possible when in a fear-based mentality. Without going too “woo” on you, I can say that there is a heart-opening that happens, a vulnerability that paradoxically unlocks tremendous power, and an energetic field that expands, calibrates, amplifies, and makes seemingly impossible things manifest.

Stowe Boyd, in response, suggested that establishing that level of trust was too high a hurdle without some intermediate steps.  Instead of trying to establish stable, ongoing collaborative networks, he argued, we should be engaging in ad hoc, project-based cooperation:

I think Venessa is trying to do something that’s very hard: she’s trying to get a group to form a collective, with a shared set of principles and shared goals. And she’s right. To get there you have to build deep trust: a polite way to say that the folks in the collective have to sort out the politics involved. In general that can take months, even when the participants share a great deal in common in education, background, and temperament.

But why form a collective? As she points out, it’s risky. If you want to build things, you can define a small project to test some ideas, and form a Hollywood-style project team to accomplish it. Instead of trying to collaborate on a big, wholly integrated vision of the future — where everything has to be discussed and agreed on before the first thing gets done — just cooperate on something fast, small, and low risk.

The way of the future is cooperation, not collaboration.

Among other reasons cooperation merely requires swift trust, a well-researched human universal. People are capable in some circumstances of relaxing their general desire to establish deep trust — that time-consuming, political practice —and will simply adopt a role in a project, and suspend their disbelief about other’s motives, etc. This is a way to get folks to suspend their innate concerns about trust and control. In these contexts, people start with the presumption that the others in the project are professionals and that everyone will focus on doing their jobs as best as the can. A lot of communication is needed to keep it all working, but much less than in deep trust organizations, like the conventional enterprise.

This is how freelancers generally work, and it’s the way that cities work.

But Venessa and her friends are involved in forming a collective, and there is no short cut for them. They will need to build deep trust, and establish processes and practices, and politics to manage them.

My recommendation to Venessa was and still is to take the short cut, though. Define some constrained projects, with more modest goals and defined time frames, and work on them with a few others. It might lead to deep trust, but even if it doesn’t you can still be working, making headway, and maybe some money, too.

Me, I’m trying to work on a few interesting projects with some smart people, but I am not pushing them into one group and trying to create a way that all of us can be involved in everything. I’m going to work with Teresa DiCairano of Intervista on ‘ambient innovation’, which is our term for social, bottom-up innovation. I’m going to work with Claude Théoret of Nexalogy exploring the science underlying social networks, and trying to make that more accessible to the average person. And I am going to push ahead with my analysis in work media — the use of streaming social media tools in the enterprise — and I will be pulling a few others into that project with me, too. But these will be three discrete projects, with non-overlapping groups of participants. I am not making everything, everything.

I am trying to remain liquid, loosely connected to others, heading the same general direction. I am specifically not trying to solidify relationships — build deep trust — before getting something done with others.

So, my general recommendation is that people should favor loose connectives — social networks with less tight ties — that rely only on swift trust. If and when you establish deep trust with individuals, perhaps during short-term, swift trust-based projects, then perhaps your can form a collective, where the principles shared common, long-term purpose.

But such collectives are not a higher form of human solidarity that we should aspire to, and are not what we have to build in order to get big things done. On the contrary. An increasing proportion of professional work is being performed by freelancers, who live in a short-term project based economy. Why should I have to agree on a long term strategic vision about the future of work media just to work with other researchers on the state of that industry, for example? Or to take the example of the city, all the stores on Main Street do not have to agree to not compete with each other, or to pool their profits, or even to paint their storefronts the same color.

The costs of deep trust are too high, in general, for what they return. This is one reason that work is changing so quickly. Companies are loosening their hold on employees, providing them more autonomy, relaxing the requirements for deep trust: becoming more like cities and less like traditional armies, with everyone is made to march in step, and pointed in the same direction, all the time.

The problem with the kind of ad hoc, project-based, one-off free agent relationships Boyd described is that they leave the individual isolated without a safety net, and thus leave the project-based model of p2p collaboration open to cooptation (as free agents become a precariat) by capitalist business firms.  An economy organized along networked lines becomes open to all the standard criticisms of managerial liberals like Thomas Frank, who sees all the talk of networks replacing hierarchies as just a smokescreen for creating a precariat of temp workers with no social safety net, who are used up and then spat out.

Miemis argued, in response to her perception that Boyd “misinterpreted [networks based on deep trust] as attempting to form some kind of unified hivemind,” that they were not a “cult,” “sacrifice of self-interest,” or “borg.”  Rather, they served the purposes of genuine self-interest, constituting (in the words of Brian Eno) a “scenius”:

Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.

Individuals immersed in a productive scenes will blossom and produce their best work. When buoyed by scenes, you act like genius. Your like-minded peers, and the entire environment inspire you.

The geography of a scenes is nurtured by several factors:

* Mutual appreciation — Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.

* Rapid exchange of tools and techniques — As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.

* Network effects of success — When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success. (Collective Epic Wins!)

* Local tolerance for the novelties — The local “outside” does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.

The purpose of deep trust networks is

To provide creative entrepreneurs and business owners the tools and ongoing support to bootstrap their ventures from inception to maturity, so they can have a continuous positive impact on systems and culture.

It strikes me that David de Ugarte’s phyle model is a middle case between these two extremes.  It overcomes the transaction costs of achieving deep trust by providing a basic infrastructure of transparency and reputational tracking—not to mention adjudication mechanisms—to recreate the functional equivalent of “deep trust” where it has not been developed by purely interpersonal relations.  And having done so, it creates a larger framework—a platform—within which ongoing collaborative relationships can take place.

At the same time, it provides the risk and cost pooling mechanisms that prevent an unprotected society of atomized free agents from being reduced to a precariat.  Whether p2p is coopted into a corporate capitalist framework or becomes a separate model of self-organized production in its own right, depends on who has the most leverage from owning the means of production and being able to walk away from the bargaining table. Ongoing relationships facilitated by common platforms reduce precarity and individual vulnerability, and potentially gives p2p communities the leverage to pull down the pillars of the capitalist temple.

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