Monday, September 27, 2004

The Breakdown of the Tribe and Its Anticipated Rebirth

community :: society

A good friend who has very little contact with the open source
movement asked me to offer ideas that could assist a non-technical
organziation for which we have both volunteered much time and energy.

As a result, I summarized (at length) ideas that other friends of
mine and I have been discussing. Though focus here is put on the open
source community, our deepest concern has been for society as a whole
and useful models of which small groups can take advantage and from
which they can learn.

I've been doing some serious analysis concerning societal paradigms,
especially in regard to evolving definitions of "tribe" over time.
Related, is the issue of group dynamics and group health. The
efficiencies and "health" of the massive open source community has been
especially puzzling until recently.

Let me start with background:

It is my current view that tribes existed as cohesive units due to
violent "external" conditions (including predators, enemies, and other
hinderances to survival). If the forces at play were external only,
we'd still have tribes today. However, I think there was a balance of
force at play: external threat vs. internal mutual dependance. Tribes
formed to increase chances of survival; they stayed together because,
even though others are a pain in the ass, they needed the lecherous
cobler, the violent warrior, the reclusive black smith, etc.

So why did the tribes start falling apart? I think it was
technology... in the form of roads, improved communication, better
farming techniques, whatever. With improved technology, comes increased
independence of individuals, greater power of each person to do things
on their own and be less dependent. Each advance in technology has
further empowered those capable of wielding it.

Technology also tends to abstract things. For instance, the modern
grocery store is an abstraction of a much longer, real-world process:
tilling, planting, harvesting, going to market. These things still
occur, but just not in the consciousness of the modern consumer... the
process has been replaced with a 5 minute zip down the road in an iron

Furthermore, it is my opinion that the extended family is an eroded
form of the tribe, and the nuclear family an even further decay. This
has concerned me for some time, especially if you believe that society
tends to represent lower common denominators (I'm thinking of average
level of consciousness). These are related in that if group
consciousness is in the process of evolving, and we have "just now" (in
the past 2000 years) experienced a dissociation of the tribe, then we
are very far from evolving a healthy replacement. It could be anywhere
from several decades to hundreds of years before we see a large-scale
integration of whatever form the next healthy "tribe" will take.

However, like so many other things in nature that evolve slowly over
time, we may actually be right in the middle of it. More digression

We drive on superhighways, lights cover the midnight city like a
spaceship... or an artist's rendition of electrons in a computer chip.
We can send people up into space... where they actually experience
relativistic changes in time (minute, but measurable). This is a world
of science fiction... become fact. In the 30s, 40s, and 50s, wacko
writers were envisioning crazy worlds that didn't do half the stuff we
can do now. One of those wackos was Asimov, whose early "predictions"
for the "far future" were outstripped within 20 years of some of his
short stories.

Our world is not the one our kind has known for millennia. It's
changing at every level. It was a crushing blow to me personally, when
this really hit home: there is no going back, there is only accepting
what we have become and making this work for us... us homo... what?
perhaps homo connectivus.

All this change sneaks up on us, though. Somehow we still function
as though parts of our minds and being were in the mid-1800s... or
800s... or 2800 B.C.E. With our changing world and the increased amount
of abstraction we are forced to deal with, I think we tend to seek safe
harbor in the human past. However, with each generation, artists,
poets, and musicians have been egging us onwards. Trying to tune our
ears, eyes, hearts, and minds to the demands that will be increasingly
made upon us and future generations.

Which brings me closer to the point of this whole thing. At the
beginning, I said how I think I am beginning to understand the open
source movement, a movement that, as one of its mottos, says "Use the
Source, Luke." The only way I was able to start getting it was through

Now mind you, open source was condemned to failure by some of the
biggest business minds in the world. It has baffled people for years:
how can it continue to exist? How does it grow? There is no money, what
is the economic model for this headless behemoth?

The secret of the open source community is that it works like a
brain. There is no ultimate hierarchy in a collection of billions of
neurons (perhaps an emerging pre-consciousness though?). More
importantly, it doesn't matter how many sick, unhealthy cells there are
in it (within obvious limits). If a set of neurons that were a major
conduit for certain signals break down, the signals get rerouted. The
brain is a highly redundant, fault-tolerant network.

The open source community is composed of millions of individuals all
over the globe. I work on projects with team members having multiple
PhDs, members who are university students, high school students and
middle schoolers, musicians, mathematicians, psychologists, blue-colors
workers, etc. The community is becoming all-pervasive. It is one of the
most tolerant, accepting, healthy and helpful communities I have ever
been involved in.

But that didn't make sense, when I thought about it. I *know* some
of those people, and many are not healthy, and some are down-right
mean. After thinking about it, I realized that the best way to consider
it was via an abstraction: Graph Theory from mathematics. Graph Theory
has nothing to do with pictures: many graph theoretic problems focus on
network connections and traversals. Weighted values. Navigating through
a "problem space" with the least expenditure of energy. Companies like
FedEx use graph theory calculations to determine the
fastest/cheapest/most productive delivery routes.

Communities with lots of members form vast networks. People are
nodes on the network and any possible means of interacting with those
people are the connections between the nodes. If someone in the open
source community treats me like shit, I don't get bent our of shape. I
make a mental note, and maybe tell my friends what a dick that person
is (thus giving that node a negative weight with less chance of
traversal). But I then try to find an alternate path to the information
I need or the information I need to share. Over time, I discover
faster, more efficient, path ways of interaction that improve my
quality of life while interacting with other members of the community.

This may seem like a cold distillation, but I am not trying to
capture or limit anything. I'm just trying to find accurate or useful
*approximations* of behavior. In highly trafficked networks, patterns
of usage begin to emerge. In networks of humans and their projects,
mini-networks tend to emerge in areas of higher-than-nornal usage.
These, mini-networks are little communities... or, shall we say,
"tribes". They are dynamic in nature and tend to develop patterns of
internal flux (immigration, emigration) as well as movement/migration
of the community/tribe as a whole. These communities often don't have
set leaders. However, the ones without leaders have very well-defined
goals and mechanisms for determining consensus. The ones with leaders
tend to have a very democratic approach to their leadership. The most
effective communities exchange an extraordinary amount of information:
constant communication and feedback is critical to success.

In networks, there is no "ultimate dependance": people and lines of
communication (nodes and connections) are only used to their abilities.
There is no round-hole-square-pegging -- that just takes too much time.
In public communication, people observe what others say and how they
say it. From that, they make initial guesses at who is good at what.
Initial guess plus trial and error. Sounds like differential
equations... and artificial intelligence ;-) You can have complete
losers, slackers, etc., in any group. They tend to add flavor ;-) They
just don't end up being used as part of the network when stuff has to
get done. They get used for whatever they are good at... like making us
laugh or letting us vent.

Once I saw this, it became clear how this could be a replacement for
the tribe. First a recap. Tribes (maybe) fell apart for the dual
reasons of:

1) increased chances of survival outside the structure of the tribe, and

2) increased convenience of obtaining amenities without having to depend on tribe members.

Since then, we've been wandering about, trying to rediscover the tribe,
trying to reinvent that which has already become extinct for the simple
fact that the causes and conditions no longer exist. Yet we evolved
with the need for the tribe; its lack is therefore part of the modern
human experience of longing.

As our educated population becomes increasingly more so, we are
finding it more and more difficult to be lead by people who represent
the lower common denominators. Perhaps not so much for what they are,
as what they represent: an outmoded form of governance. Intelligent
networks don't have to tell each node what to do. They just need a
purpose and the resources to accomplish their goals.

The need for Survival has evolved into the need for improved Quality
Of Life. In the same way the amenities support survival, Joy supports
Quality of Life. So, tribes may be able to reform under the conditions
that members experience improved quality of life and joy in their daily
activities. Joy is an amazing antidote to daily human annoyances. Joy
can bind groups with a common vision together where nothing else would

The people working on open source projects do so out of love and
joy. We love what we do. Those of us that are truly fortunate get to
work on open source *as* our jobs. The rest, though, do their jobs, and
when off work, they increase their quality of life by working on that
which brings them joy... and they do so in an open, non-hierarchical
system, with excellent communication, working with others to accomplish
things that could not be done by one, lone person.

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