Community


The traditional concept of community was built on sameness, on collections of people from the same family, speaking the same language, living in the same place, believing the same things. The fundamental challenge to community is to make decisions on matters affecting everybody while leaving to individuals, companies and institutions those matters not effectively managed by consensus.

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2018/12/05 12:00 Conversation with Pete Forsyth

Synopsis

The traditional concept of community was built on sameness, on collections of people from the same family, speaking the same language, living in the same place, believing the same things. This concept was challenged by a range of social and political reforms through the last few centuries, and while some wish to return to that simpler time, the fact is that the fundamental challenge to community is to make decisions on matters affecting everybody while leaving to individuals, companies and institutions those matters not effectively managed by consensus.

In recent years, however, this concept of community has come under challenge, with a broad social inability to even agree on basic facts and events.

In fact, as theorists such as Simon Blackburn argue, each of us can determine for ourselves whether something is true or not, at least to a certain degree. Are two numbers the same? Is one thing bigger than the other? Yes, there is a possibility of error, but the deeper problem is posted by bad actors - people who deliberately misrepresent the truth for their own benefit.

The capacity to withstand the influence of such bad actors is known technically as Byzantine Fault Tolerance, and there are different approaches to achieving consensus even when there is no certainty, based on the general common sense of the rest. While not defining truth as consensus, the problem of truth, at least from a community perspective, is a consensus problem.

This makes the mechanisms we use to interact and reach consensus particularly important. For example, even if we have a chain of verified and trustworthy facts, validated by previous consensus and guaranteed by encryption technology, how do we choose between competing chains? Digital currencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum use a “proof of work”. This makes it too expensive to create a fake chain from scratch, but at the cost of inefficiency and enormous energy consumption.

Other types of content create other types of consensus: “proof of stake” relies on guarantees of resources or assets; “proof of authority” depends on certification or validation, and “oracles” depend on widely observable and incorruptible sources of data.

What this teaches is that community and consensus are about more than voting and about more than having power. What is required for a community to work is not merely control, but agreement on the part of the members of the community. Underlying this is a respect for law, institutions and processes, and when these break down, and when consensus is lost, it is very difficult to restore.

Fostering an understanding the importance of these processes, and the costs of not being able to establish them, is a fundamental goal of education. This can be accomplished best (and maybe only) through the process of engaging in them and developing community and consensus in the classroom.

The critical literacies in a society run deeper than reading, mathematics and science. They include pattern recognition, perspective and context, inference and reasoning, and practical application and communication. They include not just being able to communicate with each other, but to be able to build and create. Consensus, ultimately, is a question of stigmergy, and we will look not only how it is created, but also how it is undermined (think, for example, of ‘dark patterns’).

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