Charlie DeTar defended his doctoral dissertation this afternoon at the MIT Media Lab. Charlie is a student in Chris Schmandt’s Mobility and Speech group, but has also been an active member of my group, Center for Civic Media, where he’s done very important work including Between the Bars, a platform that allows inmates in some US prisons to blog via the postal service. Charlie is an incredibly thoughtful guy, who takes the time to read deeply and develop nuanced understanding of issues before he builds new technologies.
His work on his doctoral thesis reflects this thoughtfulness – in building “Intertwinkles“, a platform to assist in consensus decisionmaking, Charlie conducted a deep dive into the nature of democracy, decisionmaking, group behavior and technology to assist group decisionmaking. His talk today outlined that work as context for his intervention.
Willow Brugh attended the talk and her visualization of Charlie’s remarks is below. My notes follow below her illustration.
Charlie’s remarks start with the question: “How much democracy do you have left?”
He shows a photo series of people holding papers with X marks on them – the marks represent the number of presidential elections the person expects to have left. The message – we don’t have very much democracy, if democracy means voting every four years. “Most of us wouldn’t volunteer to be governed by kings or dictators,” Charlie offers, but we face lots of non-democratic rule in real life: bosses, landlords, banks, other powerful institutions we have little influence over.
High profile, democratically-governed activist organizations tend to have short lifespans. Even long-lasting movements like Occupy tend to be relatively short lived. But collectives and cooperatives use highly participatory methods and many have been in existence for decades. Twinkles – the practice of waving your fingers to show approval, non-verbally, for a statement – is a practice that originated in the 1970s and thrives today within collectives and cooperatives. But the in-person nature of collective and cooperative governance can be slow, expensive and draining. Charlie’s core research question is whether we can design online tools for democratic consultation which result in more just and effective organizations.
To answer this question, Charlie has build a set of tools to support consensus decision-making processes, documenting the participatory design process used to develop the tools and evaluated these tools in their use by real-world groups. He’s also done deep investigative work exploring the history of non-hierarchicalism, consensus, and decisionmaking with computers.
Non-hierarchicalism looks like a simple concept at first glance – it represents forms of governance that are decentralized, flat, leaderless, or horizontal. But questions immediately arise: are facilitators imposing a covert hierarchy?
Charlie suggests we consider decentralization, using a definition from Yochai Benkler: in decentralized systems, many agents work coherently despite the fact that they do not rely on reducing the number of people participating in decisionmaking. While the number of people does not decrease, most decentralized systems require some centralization, as Charlie discusses by examining multiple models. The blogging platform WordPress is decentralized because you can download, customize and run the code, effectively becoming a chapter or franchise for WordPress. With Wikipedia, different sets of people work on different problems, editing different articles, in what can be thought of as a subsidiary model. In BitTorrent, rather than decentralizing resources, the founders have declare a protocol that determines how we interact, enabling decentralization through federation.
Each decentralization has a corresponding centralization:
- Bittorrent decentralizes servers via a centralized protocol
- WordPress decentralizes hosting via a centralized codebase
- Wikipedia decentralizes editors through a centralized database and policies
- Consensus decentralizes authority through centralizing procedures
Consensus decisionmaking is a field of governance, Charlie tells us, that works to avoid three tyrannies:
- The tyranny of the majority, when the mob beats you up
- The tyranny of the minority, where small group prevent functioning or dominate decisionmaking
- The tyranny of structurelessness, where elimination of overt structure leads to covert structure via dominant personalities, racism, sexism and other forms of dominance.
Consensus decisionmaking is the process of consulting stakeholders in a way that seeks to avoid these tyrannies. Charlie outlines seven forms of consensus, including corporate, scientific, standards, consociationalism (power-sharing), mob, assembly, focusing specifically on affinity consensus, groups of people who’ve chosen to work together on problems of common interest. He offers a matrix for how each form of consensus handles open membership, egalitarianism, formal process, and the binding nature of decisions. For instance, a corporate department that practices consensus decisionmaking still has a boss, and may not always make binding decisions. Not all groups are open – if I want to participate in the decisionmaking of Charlie’s housing cooperative, I’m going to be refused admission.
In the process of building Intertwinkles, Charlie has developed a long list of protocols that people use to enable consensus decisionmaking, including various facilitation tools, meeting phases, hand signals, roles and formats. Intertwinkles implements several of these protocols in an online environment.
To understand the history of digital tools to assist with decisionmaking, Charlie takes us back to J.C.R. Licklidder, who talked about decisionmaking with computers as early as 1962. Douglas Englebart, whose “mother of all demos” introduced many of the ideas that have dominated the next 50 years of computing, began developing methods of computer-aided decisionmaking in the late 1960s. The field was formalized as “group decision support systems”, generating a huge amount of scholarship around three systems, generally dedicated computing systems installed in “decision-support rooms” at corporations and universities. While these systems were very engineering-heavy, they often used very similar techniques to those used in consensus-oriented groups. However, it is difficult to extrapolate from the scholarship, because the vast majority of studies used artificial, composed groups, not groups with existing histories and patterns. Most were face to face and most were one-shot experiments. These methodological limitations make it hard to extrapolate to understand the utility of these tools for affinity groups, which have important existing relationships, group histories and policies.
Charlie notes that these early group decisionmaking support tools tended to provide all services – including email – to their users, because they were huge, expensive systems that often represented an organization’s first exposure to digital communication. Now systems are smaller and decentralized, including tools like Doodle (used for meeting scheduling) and Loomio, a new system designed to support discussion of proposals in forums and voting on those proposals.
While these systems are promising, Charlie hopes we can do more. He notes that Joseph McGrath put forward a helpful typology of group tasks in his 1984 book, Groups, Interaction and Performance. Ideally, we’d want a system that helps groups engage in each of these tasks – generating ideas, generating plans, executing tasks, etc.
Intertwinkles began as a participatory design project with Boston cooperative housing groups. Charlie recruited six houses from 29 collective and cooperative housing groups and hired three research assistants who were “native participants”, residents in the houses. 45 people participated, overall.
The groups he worked with were involved throughout a field trial process, from pre-interviews to help understand how groups made decision, through an extensive training session on the tools and for 8-10 weeks of usage, as Charlie and his team iterated to improve the tools with feedback from users. The process involved both the creation of new tools and a pair of games designed to inspire conversation and reflection on group dynamics, Flame War (which models decisionmaking over email) and Moontalk (a realtime game that models limited communication channels). More information on both games is available on the Intertwinkles site.
Charlie offers brief overviews of three tools. Dotstorm is based around sticky note brainstorming, and supports visual thinkers through stickies with drawings and with photos taken through laptops or other devices. The system supports real-time collaboration and sharing of ideas and runs on any contemporary web browser. Resolve supports a rolling proposal process, which allows one member of a group to propose an idea and others to expand, refine or block it, eventually voting on accepting it. The system maintains a rich history of a proposal and uses a notification system to keep participants involved in the process, but lets participants use email as their channel for free-form discussion. Points of Unity is a tool designed to help come up with a short list of values or statements that a group agrees with, which many groups find useful as a mutually agreed-upon common ground.
Many of the features of Intertwinkles are platform features shared across tools. There’s a group-centric sharing model that gives people access to documents and resources once they join the group. Membership is reciprocal (like membership in Facebook) and overlapping (you are friends with everyone in the group), a model that Charlie hasn’t seen in Facebook, Twitter or other systems. Everything is shared publicly for discrete periods of time, which lowers the barrier to entry to the system, but then reverts documents to private to avoid spam, etc. Users can take actions on behalf of other members of the group, recognizing that not everyone is active online constantly. There is rich, semantic event reporting, which allows for a “quantified group” analysis, understanding and describing a group’s behavior in quantifiable terms about participation. Intertwinkles is built on a plug-in architecture. Core services handle search, authentication, twinkles, events, notices, groups – other features plug into those core services, which makes it possible to develop radically new tools without building up the other essential components.
For the system to work, Charlie believes that participants need extensive training. What’s key is getting to the point where everyone is confident that everyone else is comfortable with the tools. To remind collectives of the tool, Charlie distributed a colorful pillow, a Twinkle Plush Star, as “an ambient reminder of the system and its uses.”
Five of the six groups used the tool, completing 66 processes and making 2155 unique edits and visits. One group didn’t use Intertwinkles beyond training, and one reported neutral to negative experiences, while the other four groups had generally positive reactions. Charlie measured the participation of each cooperative member with the system because he worried there might be uneven participation. His analysis suggests quite even participation, similar to what you might get face to face.
In examining how collectives used the system, Charlie reminds us of the idea of “technology in action”, proposed by proponents of structuration theory. This theory suggests that designers build tools for certain tasks, but the tools get used for whatever tasks a group wants to carry out, which leads to unexpected outcomes, sometimes contrary to designer’s intentions. Charlie makes his intentions clear: he wanted to make non-participation apparent, to increase awareness of conflict, to make group processes explicit, and to handle facilitation “out of band”.
He sees a correlation in satisfaction with the tool and group structure. Groups that had more confrontive approaches to decisionaking and more formal approaches to decisionmaking had better results with the tools. The group that was least satisfied tends to be avoidant of conflict and privileges action over speaking. A group that found the tools most useful makes participation in house meetings mandatory, has explicit channels for communication on conflict, and extensive house norms. This highly structured group was able to take advantage of the system in ways less structured groups did not.
Charlie sees room to improve the tools: more work on in-band facilitation, in-band training,instrumenting the platform for online learning, and building an ecosystem of developers. He plans to continue working on the tool and already sees possible alliances to build the platform in conjunction with others building tools for group decisionmaking. But he also sees value in the theoretical approach, suggesting that design research is powerful as a form of sociology and a potential quantitative and qualitative method for studying group behavior.