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Tom Atlee on the relation between peer governance and Wise Democracy processes

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
10th March 2013


Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence Institute has reacted to my previous article “Evolving Towards a Partner State in an Ethical Economy“.

His reaction sheds further light on the broader culture of democracy in which the shift to peer to peer community-based value creation is embedded.

Tom Atlee writes:

“There is a seeming contradiction between p2p systems and the approaches to wise democracy that I’ve been advocating.

P2P systems generate self-organization out of similarities and power equity: People eagerly move into productive/enjoyable relationships because of passions or needs they share with similar others when their interactions are not unduly hindered by arbitrary power-over dynamics. These relationships form naturally, needing little if any management and only simple forums to facilitate the connections.
Certain high quality group processes generate collective wisdom out of diverse people who may or may not have diverse levels of power in hierarchical systems: Such people need to be consciously brought together because they are normally and willingly separate. We actively seek people with different views, interests, roles, personalities, demographic characteristics, etc., because it is the positive use of that diversity that generates the wisdom (a “wholeness” to the resulting decision or understanding).
Yet both of these innovations – p2p systems and wisdom-generating forums – are leading edge social developments. Can some shared logic or coherent synergistic potency be found between them?

In the following thought experiment, I explore the dynamics that occur in Dynamic Facilitation – a particularly powerful process for generating wisdom out of antagonistic differences – in light of your article. I find that while such a wisdom-generating conversation doesn’t start with p2p logics, its power derives from the fact that it transmutes anti-p2p dynamics into p2p dynamics. Here’s more detail.

Wise process transmutes people’s seemingly irreconcilable differences and power differentials into peerness. They start out in antagonism, sharing primarily the sense of each other as “the problem”. Instead of talking to each other (at first), they talk to the facilitator who listens, reflects and publicly, visibly records each person’s thoughts and feelings on chart pads so that they feel well heard. This “feeling of being heard” does not involve the facilitator “agreeing” with them, but rather (a) opens up their minds and hearts so they can hear others and (b) validates their perspective as grist for a future breakthrough.

Over time participants slowly turn into a group of peers facing the shared challenge of working creatively to address the full complexity of the situation – the full landscape of everything they have all said – as embodied by what they have heard and what has been recorded on the chart pads. As they shift into co-creative mode to address their shared challenge, they almost inevitably move towards a breakthrough – a solution or policy that they all have energy for.

In terms of your article, such a process could be said to be peer production in which the product is guidance for the group or the larger community from which it was drawn. The facilitator and process perform the role described in your paper for a for-benefit institution, i.e., creating and maintaining the context within which peers can come together to produce value.

I believe that something in this narrative offers useful principles for p2p governance – a vision of governance that reaches beyond the “representation and social movements” paradigm mentioned in your article. I suspect that p2p theory will expand to embrace the dynamics above – and that the wise democracy forms I’ve promoted for more than a decade (e.g., “citizen deliberative councils”) will evolve to embrace more p2p dynamics in their functioning.”

In a further email correspondence, Tom Atlee adds:

“You write: “wherever self-allocation, stigmergic coordination and pragmatic negotiation do not function, then even within peer communities, such [wisdom-generating] processes may be useful.” I think there are already dozens of processes that are immediately applicable to that task and would be happy to share them in p2pfoundation or other contexts where they could be considered and used within the p2p worldview.

On the other hand (or additionally), there is another task for these processes, one more associated with “governance”, involving the definition, creation and maintenance of the collective playing fields and “rules of the game” – perhaps parallel to your “for-benefit institution” at a whole-system or whole-society level. Wisdom-promoting applications at this level are especially important during transitional times when we need to inject as much wisdom (policies promoting long term broad benefit) into mass institutions (like the internet and the money economy) as possible. As society becomes more distributed in its productive and self-governing capacities, the demand and need for sources of society-wide wisdom-generation may well subside. But right now, the folly-generating dynamics of current top-down systems are undermining and may further undermine our ability to generate a p2p culture (or at least its ability to mature into a functional alternative before economic, ecological and social collapse tear apart the playing field).”

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