Preserving elite knowledge in systems of peer governance

How to deal with elite knowledge, without reverting to Elitism, Celebrity and Oligarchy?

The following is excerpted from another brilliant contribution on the development of a peer governance practice and theory, by “Georgie BC” (Heather Marsh).

Key thesis:

“The key to preventing elite knowledge from becoming a tyrannical oligarchy is to maintain control by the user group over action and decisions and treat epistemic communities always as a knowledge resource, not a governing power. Shunning can be used to instantly remove power in an open system, keeping the real power within the user group, not the epistemic community. No system of elite knowledge must ever become unassailable. When combined with stigmergy the work produced in systems with transparent, permeable epistemic communities may finally be of the highest standard we can attain and the work environments will allow autonomous control for all.”

Heather Marsh on Epistemic Communities

“While most action based systems can be completely open to participation by anyone, there are situations where an elite level of knowledge and accreditation of some sort is necessary prior to participation. Complicated surgery or engineering are examples of this type of work. While accreditation can and should come from the user group and be completely transparent and permeable, ability in many cases can only be reviewed by those who have attained an above average level of specialized knowledge. In these cases, there must be peer acknowledged levels of expertise attached to specific people, a situation not compatible with pure stigmergy or horizontal action.

Idea based systems such as some scientific research, which should be open to all contributions, require extensive feedback and peer review of ideas, both to identify signal from noise and to provide knowledge bridges between elite levels of knowledge and casual users. In many specialized systems such as the pharmaceutical industry, the entire user group has an urgent interest in ensuring that ideas are properly audited but few have the interest or ability to inform themselves to the level necessary to be able to audit. No one has the time to inform themselves to an expert level of knowledge in every system which affects them, even if that information is completely transparent and available to all. In these systems, ideas need to be promoted by those users qualified to understand them.

In these cases, it is necessary to define a form of elitism, of ideas or people, that will take advantage of expertise but not remove control of a system from the end users. Ignoring elite knowledge in favour of a pretense at completely horizontal governance will not eliminate elitism, it will only create hidden oligarchies dominated by those without the expertise required, usually celebrity personalities.

In allowing this form of elitism, ultimate choice must always be left with the entire user group. An epistemic community is a knowledge resource only; superior knowledge can only be forced to work for the wellbeing of the entire user group if authority remains with the entire user group and the epistemic community is forced to remain completely transparent and permeable. Science may dream of brilliant innovations, but the user group controls whether those are implemented or created. This authority also provides the incentive for transparency and knowledge bridges to explain reasoning to the entire group.

As in stigmergy, votes in a concentric group are frequently replaced by actions, as expert review will show the options most likely to bring the best results. This information is then available to all and those options will, barring outside factors, be accepted as best practices by most of the user group. The celebrated hive mind behind recent actions has never actually existed in practice; the hive takes actions but ideas originate with individuals. On every occasion depicted as a mass hive action there has been epistemic community or solitary planning creating a butterfly effect. Even when these planning groups are theoretically open to all, they are in actuality only open to those with knowledge of them. Acknowledging epistemic communities does not create them, it simply brings them into the open and allows any member of the user group to participate.

An epistemic community can be people or ideas, depending on the situation. While credit for ideas must always be given, idea based systems should probably promote ideas instead of people, a body of laws instead of a judiciary. While action in a specialized action based system can only be taken by those qualified, meaningful input can come from a broad section of the user group and be evaluated and promoted by those qualified. Promoting ideas also allows auditing of an idea without all the unrelated distraction of attached personalities.

In such a system it is absolutely essential that global communication be recognized as a first basic right of all people, as communication is power to obtain all the rights which follow and the method to claim membership in society.” (

Epistemic communities in action based systems

In open source software, the code for each project is available for all to see. Even if the end user cannot understand the code, they can go to discussion groups and read or listen to programmers who have read and audited the code, hear their discussions, and watch them find bugs and discuss alternative solutions. The people with the greater knowledge of the system will provide knowledge bridges for people at a more novice level. Good ideas from these discussions can be read, discussed and possibly implemented by the developers as well. Open source software with forums open to all are a perfect working example of fully transparent and audited systems of elite knowledge. While the decisions are made by the developers, review and acceptance or rejection of the software is the right of the user group. If the developers refuse to listen to the user group and another development team is willing to work on the project, the original code can be forked and modified to meet the user requirements.

Traditional systems primarily use a supposedly representative sample of the user group to provide periodic feedback. This feedback is delivered as percentages of the population which ignores the importance of the individual. From an individual perspective, the chance of dying of a side effect from a pharmaceutical is either 0% or 100%, group statistics have no effect on individual experience. Transparent user groups allow feedback and ideas from the entire user group, an automatic testing and validation system in place continually throughout development and operation. Risks which are ‘statistically insignificant’ become extremely important when they happen to an active participant in the user group community and more accurately reflect a real society vs a system of dissociation.

The git model of open software with replaceable lords of a fiefdom may be improved on in a system where the entire epistemic community operates by consensus, but as long as there is transparency and the ability for anyone to fork the code and start anew, oligarchies can still be avoided. Coursera-like online courses where students teach each other and have direction from an epistemic community of instructors with knowledge bridges of graduates and fellow students is another example of a concentric circle in the cases where the course material is released as creative commons. CryptoParties are another.

As we ponder how to create action and idea based systems, the internet, and so the world, is becoming more personality based than ever before in history. The Internet is rapidly transforming from being page centric to people centric; the hive mind has become me the people. As liquid democracy type representation becomes more accepted, personal branding for power becomes even more entrenched. Anonymity and group work are being pushed aside in favour of personal celebrity for all.

Along with celebrity have come tools to measure celebrity. The first such tool was Wikipedia, a glorification and amplification of corporate media. Now Klout and similar are taking influence measurement further and not just creating celebrity oligarchies but also dictating the terms of engagement between the oligarchies and the user group by their algorithms. These tools do not just measure influence, through the Hawthorne Effect they create it, and unchecked, their algorithms will dictate the terms of our new society. If Klout scores people higher for engagement, celebrity thought leaders will engage. If Klout scores higher for engaging with higher ranked celebrities, the powerful will become more powerful and even unassailable. If Klout celebrities score higher for only interacting with and following each other, we will have a closed oligarchy.

Klout is one example, but there are many powerful tools doing the same; the Google search controversy over whether Google should show people what they already like instead of presenting a more realistic, broader view is another. Even a search engine presenting the most commonly sought result instead of a random selection helps entrench already entrenched ideas. Sponsored ‘who to follow’ groups or Twitter’s event pages with only certain tweeters shown are others. A short time ago, if you wished for real influence, as opposed to influence created to sell to marketers, cheating by gaming the influence measurement systems wouldn’t help, because the tricks brought no real influence. Now real influence follows the appearance of influence. In addition to gaming scams, it is openly possible to buy influence by, for instance, paying Facebook to promote your page or Twitter to promote a tweet.

While Twitter was a data driven breakthrough for online society, where no one needed acceptance to begin speaking, this is becoming less true all the time. Anyone can speak, but voices are amplified as favours given and received and the rules change as accounts grow more powerful. Pure data driven systems are unfortunately nearly impossible technologically in a time of spam and astroturfing software; with the vast amounts of data in our world, celebrity amplification of good ideas is needed. The first reaction to this realization by those wishing for a horizontal community was to create group hubs, but these have largely and correctly been felled by the problems with group affiliation.

An idea popularized by celebrity personality endorsement without knowledgeable input can subsequently be exposed as simplistic, factually incorrect or otherwise flawed by those with deeper knowledge, but the celebrity endorsement can drown the expert knowledge (see the Kony 2012 campaign for an example of celebrity endorsement drowning local knowledge). The influence of celebrities from entertainment and sports industries over unrelated topics is illogical but widespread, and they are more than ever expected to use that influence in areas completely outside their knowledge sphere. When actors Yao Chen and Chen Kui Kun posted support to Southern Weekend newspaper on Sina Weibo, it appeared more newsworthy than a statement from the United Nations would be.

Even within the entertainment industry, which may be thought to be within the sphere of celebrity expertise, most had hoped for grass roots driven promotion to replace corporate promotion. Instead we find corporate sponsorship replaced by a tweet from Justin Bieber, which launched stars such as Carly Rae Jepsen and Psy far more immediately and effectively than a label ever dreamed of doing.

All of the above sounds very discouraging, but it really isn’t. The first step in any cleaning and organizing is to drag everything out to the open to be sorted and that is really what has happened with celebrity. None of this influence is new, it is in fact a far more toned down, accessible and transparent version of the celebrity and influence peddling we have had for years. It is palatable for an individual you choose whether or not to follow to recommend an artist that you can choose to watch or not without diluting your supply of alternative choices; compared to the control once exerted by music labels this does not seem evil. Citing papers in academia or votes in Hollywood’s Academy Awards are no less subject to influence peddling.

Much of the undue influence is inherently repulsive to most people, and they have already begun to combat it. The Kony 2012 campaign suffered an immediate if largely unheard backlash from the people actually in the region; today those rebuttals would be even more immediate and well amplified. Even the traditional pundits from old corporate media hardly dare write any more about regions they are not resident of; soon all such foreign punditry will be replaced by local voices and news will be reported by those it is happening to as audiences will demand that level of informed opinion.

A cultural shift is required around celebrity. Celebrity was created to distract attention from issues the true oligarchies did not want scrutinized; the public’s ‘right to know’ was transferred from the business of the government to the hair style of an entertainer. This type of celebrity is no longer needed and it is becoming rapidly diluted as the general population Occupy celebrity by being Tumblr famous, Twitter famous, etc. Expertise is already largely separate from celebrity, voice amplification will soon be merely a job and a fairly boring one at that.

Until this cultural shift is complete, it is dangerous to concentrate even knowledge based celebrity in one individual or group of individuals, and there must be continuous intelligent auditing by the user groups. Open epistemic communities generally are plagued with members who may or may not be qualified to be there but they play the outer circles against the inner and create a human interest story of themselves – their fame and popular support makes them impossible to challenge or shun. This is distracting and detracts from the work of the community; user groups must ensure that while they watch their communities for inclusiveness, they do not allow this type of manipulation.

The tools to moderate a celebrity or expertise oligarchy are in the hands of the people. Hopefully the user groups will moderate, exercise their ability to shun for bad behaviour and refuse to allow control to leave the entire user group. There is no reason why a person with a learning disability should be less happy or satisfied than a brilliant mind, or why gardening should not be as rewarding a life work choice as participating in an epistemic community or acquiring internet celebrity. As discussed in the financial system, it is an artificially controlled environment of privilege that makes one seem better than the other and it is easily overcome in a population not controlled by their financial system.”

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