Peer Governance and Wikipedia (interview with Hartzog; discussion with Bauwens, Cedric & Hartzog)

This last post concerning the interview part includes Paul Hartzog ‘s philosophical position followed by an intriguing “discussion” amongst Bauwens, Hartzog and Cedric (read the previous interviews here and here).

Interview with Hartzog

Question: How does governance without government come possible? In your work (2005, 2008) you firstly define what governance and government imply (“government is enforcement by coercion backed up by force or the threat of force” whereas “governance involves voluntary compliance by the governed because of shared norms and values”), and then articulate that the reason why governance becomes possible without government is because in the information age, governance is based on accurate information and transparency. Based on your aforementioned ideas can you offer us your views about how Wikipedia can successfully confront the governance problems that faces?

Hartzog’s answer: Well, “governance without government” has been the challenge of international relations for as long as we have been without a world government. There are many ways to define coercion and enforcement, but the bottom line is that under peer-to-peer anarchical systems parties enter into contracts where they agree to the terms and to the sanctions necessary to keep all parties participating appropriately.

These kinds of arrangements have a long history: Kant, Kropotkin, the list goes on. The system works as long as you can opt-out and/or transfer into other arrangements when you are being treated unfairly. This is a Locke-an option, but not tied to geophysical territory. Majority-based government, even with minority protections, becomes problematic once you reach the panarchy stage because you essentially have a populace that is nothing other than a collection of many smaller minority groups, the “long tail” of social governance. Evenseemingly fundamental issues like “human rights” become problematic. Hardt and Negri’s “Multitude” provokes us to reconsider what governance means under those conditions. Fortunately we need not relapse into postmodern nihilism. While we give up on the premise of a master narrative, neither do we have to accept a total absence of narrative. Instead we have narratives, in the plural, socially constructed and perspectivally situated. “No center” is not the same as “many centers.” There are two governance problems. The first problem regards content: comprehensiveness vs. quality-control. The second problem regards the inability of unhappy communities to circumvent administrative hierarchies.

The solution to both problems is to allow a kind of “forking” similar to open-source software practices. The solution to the first problem was pointed out to me by Henrik Ingo, but essentially comes from set theory. A comprehensive Wikipedia does not rule out having many subsets with various boundaries (topical, quality, etc.), but a too-rigidly-bounded Wikipedia does rule out having larger subsets that include more material. Comprehensiveness wins because it allows for more other possibilities. The solution to the second problem is to spread Wikipedia out over an “opt in” peer-to peer network instead of putting it on servers controlled by bureacrats. Page contributors need to be able to move pages to other administrators when current administrators are being unreasonable. Simply knowing that pages can be moved out from under them will tend to make administrators more reflective and transparent in their practices. Interestingly enough, these are the same reasons why panarchy as a kind of pluralistic global multiculturalism is the only viable political form any longer. A panarchical public sphere does not rule out having many smaller variants (geophysical, global cities, historical, etc.). You can see how the logic of the multitude also applies to information systems. For example, as Weinberger, more metadata always makes possible more ways of collecting data into smaller subsets. If you have “too much” metadata, you simply add metadata to your metadata to allow for smaller groupings.

Discussion amongst Bauwens, Cedric, and Hartzog.

Question to Bauwens and Hartzog: Cedric, an ex-Wikipedian prominent member of Wikipedia Review, said to me the following:

To be fair, it is quite possible that there still would have been a “inclusionism” vs. “deletionism” debate on Wikipedia even if it had a far more rational and functional governance model. It’s just that it would have been less of a distraction. In the end, I think that is the best description for it: “a distraction”; for “inclusionism” vs. “deletionism” is a symptom, not a root problem.

What do you think of the aforementioned statement? Is in fact this debate a symptom and not a root problem?

Bauwens’ answer: I disagree, the reason is the following:

-When we have abundant resources, we do not have to fight for them, but can use self-aggregation

-When we have scarcity, we have to decide about allocation, which we can do democratically, hierarchically, or through a market mechanism, but it is unavoidably conflictual and creates a selective power to choose

Sometime the difference is objective, but it can also be a design question and what deletionism does, is to artificially create a scarcity and hence a power mechanism where none was objectively necessary. So, it is a fundamental issue but it springs from another one which is: how to design for excellence and it is a wrong answer to that problem. Now, of course, you can argue that even with deletionism, an appropriate democratic mechanism may have been selected, and that would have mitigated the rampant power abuse. So, in a way, there are different levels of analysis, very much inter-related so that any root cause never exists on its own, causing all the others,

Hartzog’s answer:

Inclusion and exclusion are a consequence of drawing boundaries which is a fundamental fact of life. The challenge in both communities and knowledge spaces is how to create aggregates in which boundaries are interpenetrated and overlapping. In knowledge spaces, it’s tagging, i.e. non-“mutually exclusive” categorization schemas. In communities it’s cosmopolitan multiculturalism, i.e. non-“mutually exclusive” categories. I think that the problem has always been central to human civilization, but the information technologies of the 21st century have given us an ease and speed that bring the problem to the fore. Not sure if I said this before, but I always end with Adorno: we can’t avoid categories and boundaries, so all we can do, and we must do it, is to remain reflective and compassionate about our inclusions and exclusions.

C.’s answer in regard with Bauwens’ fore position: I shall start by saying where I agree with Bauwens. First, in his last sentence, where he says there is no single root cause for abuse of power on Wikipedia. That is certainly true with regard to the faults and abuses responsible for Wikipedia’s impending self-destruction. In my essay, I identified at least six root causes for this, and there is indeed a degree of interrelation between them. Secondly, I also agree that “deletionism”, if taken to extremes, would be harmful to Wikipedia’s value as an encyclopedia (such as it is). However, I also believe (as I said earlier) that extreme “inclusionism” is harmful as well.

I first suspected when reading Bauwens’ response that he was a Wikipedia contributor and an “inclusionist”, but having better familiarized myself with his theories re P2P communities, I think it far more likely that he was simply viewing Wikipedia’s problems through the prism of his theories. I cannot agree that the struggle between “inclusionists” and “deletionists”, while very real, is a root cause for Wikipedia tearing itself apart. I would not be at all surprised to learn, for instance, that there may have always been something of a “inclusionist” vs. “deletionist” debate going on at Encyclopaedia Britannica, but we simply do not know about it because all we see is the final, printed product. Yet, Britannica has been around for over 200 years. The forces tearing Wikipedia apart are more basic.

Frankly, the “inclusionists” and “deletionists” strike me as if they were two rival groups of musicians, sneering at and insulting one another, while they pluck at their lyres as Wikipedia burns down all around them. If you want to really understand why Wikipedia is doomed, you would do better to read Tacitus and Plutarch, rather than Bauwens and Godwin. The past, as ever, is prologue. The technology employed by Wikipedia does not exempt them from this.

1 Comment Peer Governance and Wikipedia (interview with Hartzog; discussion with Bauwens, Cedric & Hartzog)

  1. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » Wikipedia and Conflict

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