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Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Oregon Connection

The Oregon news media are largely focused on local news. Oh, there's some coverage of regional and national issues, and some (not very good) international coverage, but local is more important. Every once in a while, they find some facet of a non-local story that involves a place or person in Oregon, and they go nuts over it. They call it the Oregon Connection. I swear, if the sun was about to go nova, and they found out that the robot telescope that was used to discover the fact was designed by an engineer from Portland, there'd be more column inches on the front page of the Oregonian newspaper under the headline, "End of the World - The Oregon Connection" than there would be under "Sun to Kill Us All".

Jimbo Wales gave a keynote address at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in Portland Friday, and they wanted to do a story about it in the paper. As you know Bob, Jimbo is the daimyo of Wikipedia, and some bright geek at the paper remembered the Wiki technolgy was invented by Ward Cunningham, who has lived in Portland for several decades. So they got the two of them together for an interview with an Oregon Connection (follow the title link).

It's an interesting interview, but there's one response from Wales that got my attention, because it relates to the discussion in the "Gaming Wikipedia" thread on Making Light. The thread is about how much of what goes on in Wikipedia is in the control of admins who are more concerned about arbitrary rules (many of which they seem to be making up as they go along) than about the accuracy and scope of the articles. In the interview, Wales saye:

For me, it's kind of evolved into a general philosophy for social software. . . . After seeing things like Wikipedia emerge and be really big, people still tend to start out designing any sort of social software by thinking of all the bad things people might do rather than saying: Let anybody do anything, but make sure you can reverse it. Make sure it's visible what's going on. . .

And I think that kind of deliberate vulnerability kind of raises everybody's ethics a little bit, whereas locking it down then generates this kind of environment of, "Oooh, everything's locked down." So now the game is to try to figure out how to vandalize it, or how to misbehave. Defacing an article on Wikipedia is, like, fun for half a second. It's not that exciting.

But what's happened is that a class of bureaucrats has emerged to prevent exactly the openness that Wales is talking about, and it's not clear that he's aware of it. Which leaves Wikipedia in exactly the place you'd expect to find a naive Libertarian experiment: in the hands of those who can grab power and hold onto it the longest.

Visiting the East Side

We spent the day visiting Madras, Oregon. Well, driving there, walking around, then driving back. We haven't been out that way in years, and it's grown a bit, but the real reason to go is the scenery. We drove out route 26, the route to the ski runs at Timberline Lodge and Ski Bowl. The road runs along the southwest side of Mt Hood, and goes as high as 4800 ft, so you get some great views of the mountain, especially on the south side as you move enough away to see the entire mountain, rather than just the part above you when you're on the slope.

But then comes the part I'd forgotten about. As you move south from Mt Hood, and come past on the north side of Mt. Jeffereon, you approach the Deschutes River Canyon. The land around there is pretty flat, until the road goes down into a cut and you see the canyon, hundreds of feet deep. To get to Madras you drive down to the river at the bottom of the canyon, then back up to the top on the other side. Once out on the east side you can't see the canyon anymore. It's kind of eerie.

Friday, July 27, 2007

It's Almost Our Birthday

No, I don't have a mouse in my pocket. Eva and I have birthdays one day apart, she's July 29 and I'm July 31. And this year, she's turning 60 (I did that last year, so I get to be oh so very superior). We're planning on a day trip this weekend out to the east side of Mount Hood, and I"m off of work on Monday (the company has a policy of giving you your birthday off) because that's our "official" birthday. So I don't know if I'll get to post anything again before Monday or Tuesday.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Why I Want Wikipedia to be Less Bureaucratic

Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Making Light, a place I hang out in a lot, started a bit of ruckus in the thread at the link above, by commenting on a row at Wikipedia over admin powers and responsibilities. In the course of the discussion, the subject got to the enforcement of style guides and how this both shapes and discloses the uses and abuses of power on the site. The style discussion gets kicked off by comment #70, though the whole thread is worth reading.

I'm not going to recap the discussion; most of the commenters are at least as intelligent and articulate as I am, if not more so, and they don't need me to paraphrase them. But I want to expand on one comment I made at #153:

What concerns me the most about the way Wikipedia is going is that it's a grand experiment that will very likely affect the way organizations are built on the web for many years to come. In particular one of its experiments is in automating the routine aspects of organizing and regulating a consensus-driven endeavor, and so far that part of the experiment has been pretty much a failure, as shown by how much energy goes into these "routine" decisions and their aftermath. That's a shame; if we could learn how to do that, it would make creating and operating dynamically-organized work groups much easier and faster, and therefore more common.

One of the reasons I've spent the last 25 years or so working on computer software is that I've had a vision of the computer as a tool that can be used to help people communicate and work with each other. There are a lot of necessary tasks in any social endeavor (and all groups of people working together are social in nature) that people are typically bad at, because they involve mind-numbing drudgery, or require highly-consistent results on routine decision-making. The result is either non-optimal decisions, delayed or ignored decisions, or both. It seems to me that some of that problem can be solved by automating some of routine work that has to get done.

It would also be helpful to automate routine organizational work: figuring out who needs to be notified about things, managing the form and content of routine messages, scheduling routine tasks, etc. Doing this would allow the building of organizational frameworks that can be parameterized and customized for a given organization. So starting up a new group to do something like what an existing group does would be relatively easy. Properly done, customization could be continual, so the organization could be modified to deal with new requirements and newly-discovered consequences of old requirements. Essentially what I want to do is remove the human bureaucrat from the organization; make routine the domain of the machine, and make sure that there are humans available to monitor the artificial bureaucrats and prevent them from becoming autocrats as human bureaucrats so often do.

In my wilder dreams, I hope that this idea can be applied to government as well. I'm somewhat of a minimalist in government; I've often said that I'd be an anarchist if I could figure out how to make it work in the real world. But I'm not a Libertarian, because I know how much grunt work has to be done to keep any social structure running, and I know how easy it is for that gruntwork to become bureaucratic makework.1 So some sort of formal regulation structure is necessary, much as Libertarians and Conservatives may not like the idea.

Here's an example of how this idea might work. Let's say I want to create a special interest group on theatrical costuming.2 The group should be a resource for discussion of the history, purposes, techniques, and styles of costuming, for the exchange of designs and tools for creating costumes, and for exchange of information about jobs in the field. And it will probably acquire other purposes as time goes on. An organization of this sort needs some structure around maintaining a membership list, if only for mailing out notices and newsletters. If it requires dues and provides services from them, it needs some financial structure and some oversight mechanism.3

As things are done today, my first step, assuming I expect this organization to be of any size and geographical distribution, is to find someone with experience in running such an organization. That may be a professional, whom I will have to hire and pay. It probably also means hiring a lawyer, at least to set up articles of incorporation and some sort of initial licensing and registration with governmental bodies, where appropriate.

In a better world, I would first go to the open source organization repository, and look for frameworks designed for similar kinds of organization. I'd chose one and download it, then run its setup program, filling in parameters and selecting customization options. The result would be (among other things) a description of the organization in some standard form that could have legal status once approved and registered. This could be passed among the people who are interested in the initial formation of the organization and discussed and modified until consensus on the form is reached. The final description could be sent to a lawyer to be vetted, in the same way one would get legal advice on a contract.

Once the description is agreed upon, the server program that implements the organization is started and connected to database, web, and email resources as needed. Then the initial set of officers, administrators, whatever you want to call them, the people who will monitor the operation of the organization and handle out-of-routine decisions, would be identified to the server and the organization could begin to function. As problems with the description or new requirements are discovered, the administrators would modify the customization to deal with them using tools built into the framework.

For some time, I've viewed Wikipedia as a (rather primitive, I admit) test bed and protoype for some of these concepts, and that, if it is successful, as an illustration and demonstration of the advantaqes of this sort of automation. But the amount of energy that's wasted in the wrangling over decisions that should be made and appeals handled routinely as well, has convinced me that it would be better not to consider Wikipedia as a test of these ideas, because they would surely be deemed failures based on the current outcome.

1 Classic description of this process in fiction: in Ursula LeGuin's "The Dispossessed", the department responsible for scheduling people's regular cleaning and maintenance assignments in an anarchical society ends up running the society.

2 Let's assume for a moment that organizations like the International Costumers' Guild, Inc. don't already exist.

3 You need to be able to select (perhaps elect) a Treasurer, and you never leave the Treasurer with non-transparent access to the money.

More frequent posts, honest

I'm going to start posting regularly now, if only because I need the practice in writing. And if I keep updating my website, maybe I'll even get some visitors.