Flemming Funch on how to deal with meritocratic power structures

This is a broad, more generic reaction to the issues raised by our Wikipedia articles, by Flemming Funch.

Flemming Funch:

“More generally it is also about how to deal effectively with power structures. Particularly when they’re self-organized meritocracies.

In some ways it is more simple to understand the power structure a prisoner in Gitmo Bay is stuck with, than it is to deal with the anarchic internet variety. The prisoner is pretty damn stuck, but we have an idea who to vote for, or not, to change it, and there are some news channels through which one can raise a bit of a stink.

But on the net, I’ve run into several varieties of the kind of power group one meets in the Wikipedia reviewers.

In 1994 I was running the Whole Systems mailing list, which was a lively and useful place at the time. I was thinking about getting it turned into a Usenet Newsgroup, in part to get a wider distribution. At that time, as now, there’s nobody who controls Usenet per se. So, if there’s something that needs to be done, essentially the instructions are to go and ask “over there”. And “over there” is a particular newsgroup where one talks about adding or deleting groups and that kind of thing. And walking into that group is a bit like walking into the cantina in Star Wars. It seems to be populated with a ragtag collection of random murderers and crazy people, but they’re for some reason the people in charge. If you survive their questions and their ridicule without breaking down, they might consider you ok, and they might grant your request. But it has to stand up to whatever they throw at it, fair or not. I eventually gave up on the Usenet group, but I learned some things.

Today it works the same way if you have a server on the internet and it unfairly ended up on a blacklist. Being on a blacklist means that large swaths of the internet, like all of Yahoo and AOL, might not be able to receive your mail. And those lists are usually run by anarchic little groups of unknown techies, who often don’t have a name, an address, a phone number or an e-mail. Some of the important spam control agencies have no direct way of contacting them. Again, there’s a discussion group where they hang out, and you can go and bring up your issue. And, again, that’s like walking into some neo nazi biker bar, and you’re black or gay or wearing a turban, and you go “hi fellows!!” You need to convince them you’re innocent, even though you look guilty to them, and you need to persuade them to actually do something for you, like remove you from a list. Despite that you don’t actually know who “they” are, and despite that they’re in no way obligated to, and that you have no recourse if they don’t do it.

Interestingly, I have myself been a proponent for power structures based on self-organized meritocracy. Some of you might have seen my Holoworld vision of an ideal society? One of the key principles is that one gains a position of power or authority by an investment of care in some area. So, the people who water and tend the rose garden are the people who’ll be in the position of deciding how it will be used. You can’t buy power in-absentia by votes or money. If you’ve build the wind mill, and you’re taking care of it, you naturally have the power to decide about it.

I still think that the ideal is found in that direction. But it opens up the question of how to effectively deal with power structures like that. A small group might end up controlling what has become an extremely important piece of infrastructure. And if one can’t just appeal to some higher authority, what does one do, if one isn’t happy with their way of working? There are various possibilities. One can try to get admitted to the group, so that one is one of them. One can bring a lot of friends, and set up a competing force. One can campaign and try to sway public opinion to exert pressure on that group.

For sure it happens differently in old traditional power structures. It is more about guiding a swarm of attention than it is about getting an audience with the person with authority. It is more about a certain critical mass of public opinion than it is about just good arguments.

And that gets somewhat back to the communication issue. If you can show that you represent a group of people of some weight, and you weave a web of connections between the parts of your subject, and you’re able to present it clearly and somewhat neutrally – you become hard to ignore, even if people don’t agree with you.

The anarchic usenet control group would have to accept a new group if it seems that there’s a significant group of people who really want it, and it is well argued why. The spam blacklist group would kind of have to stop blocking a server if it is sufficiently well argued why they shouldn’t, whether they agree with what the server does or not. And Wikipedia editors would kind of have to accept the existence of a certain series of pages, if it is demonstrated that they’re needed, that they’re part of a real subject, and they’re well written.

None of them HAVE to do anything, but what I’m saying is that it is guided more by an evaluation of how big a bleep on the radar you are, more than about whether one agrees or disagrees with the subject matter.

But if they really are found to be against certain types of materials, the answer is to create an alternative place to store these things, and build up some momentum, until that new effort is a force one can’t get around.”

1 Comment Flemming Funch on how to deal with meritocratic power structures

  1. AvatarZbigniew Lukasiak

    What I would propose is to do it proactively – not just wait until a given group would step on your toe – but start reacting as soon as you see some bad practice. And a corollary to that would be that we all need to become conversant in analysing the impact of particular group practices on the wider population and in the subject of what is good and what is bad community practice.

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