Trust, Truth, Consensus and Community on the distributed web

The seventh topic in the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC  has been Community. I have invested quite a bit of my time over the years learning about community – or more specifically communities of practice. I have been a founder member of a community (ELESIG which is still going strong) and a facilitator/moderator in a community (CPsquare – which no longer functions as a community, but relationships still remain – see image below). I have attended courses on CoPs to dig deeper into the theory behind them (BEtreat workshops ), published three research papers about communities of practice and have written numerous blog posts. (I should add a page to my blog about this). I thought I had a reasonable understanding of what it means to be a member of a community, but this week has made me doubt this understanding.  Why?I have been asking myself this question for quite a few days now, and today it occurred to me is that it is a language problem. The way in which language related to community is being used in this course about the distributed web, i.e. what we mean by community, consensus, trust and truth in the distributed web, is not how I have previously understood it.

Let’s start with trust.

Trust is thought to be an essential component of communities of practice. In their book (p.8) Digital Habitats, Wenger, White and Smith write:

‘Learning together depends on the quality of relationships of trust and mutual engagement that members develop with each other, a productive management of community boundaries, and the ability of some to take leadership and to play various roles in moving the inquiry forward’

And in Wenger, McDermott and Snyder’s book, Cultivating Communities of Practice  (p.85) they have written:

The trust community members need is not simply the result of a decision to trust each other personally. It emerges from understanding each other. As one oil reservoir engineer observed, “Sometimes you can share an insight that is so useful it saves a well from going down, but you don’t save a well at the first meeting.”

In other words, communities take time to develop, which is also depicted by the diagram above.

But in the conversation that Stephen had with Pete Forsyth they both agreed that the internet is a trust-less environment. In his post on ‘The Problem of Trust’, Vitalik Buterin has written:

If you were to ask the average cryptocurrency or blockchain enthusiast what the key single fundamental advantage of the technology is, there is a high chance that they will give you one particular predictable answer: it does not require trust.

This suggests that trust either functions differently or doesn’t exist at all on the distributed web. Stephen and Pete both believe that trust is an aspect of community. So both trust and community on the distributed web, in their terms, seem to mean something different to Wenger et al.’s understanding of it.

Pete Forsyth suggested that in Wikipedia (which I have written about in a previous post) we put our trust in facts and not in people. I can accept that on the distributed web it probably makes more sense to understand trust in these terms. That’s not to say that there won’t be trust between people, but perhaps we don’t need this on the distributed web. So the meaning of trust might be more limited term on the distributed web?

But what about community?

In a draft document he has shared with us (I have typed draft in bold, so that we can acknowledge that it might change), Stephen distinguishes between what he calls ‘natural’ communities as opposed to ‘organised’ communities of the type discussed by Wenger and his colleagues. He describes natural communities, e.g. ‘your average city’, as lacking in trust, where there are enforcement mechanisms, because we don’t trust people to obey the law or rules. ‘Cities are polyglot, factional, disjointed. Yet, still – they are communities’, he writes. I have yet to be convinced by the idea that a city is a community.

I believe that there can be and are communities within cities, but that cities are not communities. I agree with the author of this post about ‘What does community mean?’ where s/he has written: ‘just living near each other, as in a suburban neighborhood, doesn’t mean you’re in community.’ (The rest of the post is also interesting). ‘Neighbourhood’ may be a more appropriate term for a city, as Mike Caulfield suggested for FedWiki – which could be described as a decentralized distributed wiki (see my previous post for further discussion) and ‘network’ may be more appropriate for the distributed web.

But there is a reason for Stephen’s focus on community this week, which seems to be that working on the distributed web requires consensus; consensus to agree on what information can be trusted to be true. How do we achieve this consensus on the distributed web where there is no ‘leader’ and no ‘common ground’? Stephen believes that we do this through community and that community is consensus.

My question is, do we have to have community for consensus on the distributed web?  Unless I have completely misunderstood this, the evidence from Preethi Kasireddy’s post How does distributed consensus work? would seem to suggest that the answer is ‘No’, unless we are attributing the word ‘community’ to non-human actors. I have a horrid feeling that I have completely misunderstood all this, but from where I am standing, the word ‘community’ being used in this context just does not fit with any of my prior understanding.

In relation to achieving consensus on the distributed web about what information we can trust, we are told by Waggoner et al. that there are many consensus methodologies, to the point where they have written a paper questioning whether there is a consensus on consensus methodology.  From this article we can see that many researchers are working on how to achieve consensus in relation to the trust we can put in facts on the distributed web.

But what about in society? What are the consequences of a consensus driven society which relies on agreement. As John Kay wrote way back in 2007 in his article ‘Science is the pursuit of truth, not consensus’, ‘Consensus finds a way through conflicting opinions and interests’. (The Financial Times has blocked me from posting a link to this article. You will need to ‘trust’ me that this is what he wrote!) Kay seems to suggest that consensus is often arrived at, at the expense of truth. If this is so, should we ‘trust’ in the ‘truths’ arrived at by consensus?

In his article: Fake News, Wikipedia and Blockchain (Truth and Consensus), Arthur Charpentier seems to suggest that the words we use matter. He writes:

This plurality of words, and the absence of a reference word, is not unlike the philosophy conveyed by crypto-currencies: instead of a centralised mode of governance (validation, certification), it is a global validation by a network, a consensus, which will prevail. Have we changed our definition of what truth is?

This resonates with me because this week I have been asking myself similar questions. What does community mean in relation to the distributed web? Can community function on the distributed web? Do trust, community and consensus take on different meanings on the distributed web? Perhaps we need to go back to what these words mean and whether they have taken on different meanings for use in discussion about the distributed web.

Stephen Downes’ summary of this topic – Community – Summary of the topic

https://el30.mooc.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=68638

Source of images

Stages of development of a community of practice  – https://www.slideshare.net/richard.claassens/communities-of-practice-stages-of-development-388654

Fake News, Wikipedia and Blockchain (Truth and Consensus) – https://freakonometrics.hypotheses.org/52608

Thoughts about community as curriculum in #rhizo14

richard-giblett-mycelium2Source of image- http://www.galeriedusseldorf.com.au/GDArtists/Giblett/RG2005/source/mycelium.html (Richard Giblett)

The idea of community as curriculum is not new. Etienne Wenger wrote about it in his 1998 book on communities of practice – and since no ideas are truly original, his thinking was probably influenced by prior writers -but nevertheless his book is the most thumbed on my bookshelf and in 1998 he wrote that education is:

‘… about balancing the production of reificative material with the design of forms of participation that provide entry into a practice and let the practice itself be its own curriculum… (p.265)

He has grounded the idea of ‘community as curriculum’ in the practice of the community, but he has also stated very clearly what he means by community and what he means by curriculum.

There is clear evidence from communities of practice that the practice itself is its own curriculum. The strongest community that I am a member of is CPsquare – the community of practice about communities of practice. This has been going for many years and has a strong group of core members who welcome peripheral participants and support them in their learning trajectory. It is a semi-open community – full access is through paid membership.

I am also a now peripheral, but originally a founding, member of the ELESIG community  – a community for people interested in researching learners’ experiences of e-learning. This also has a strong core group and is an open community. This community does not yet have the depth of shared history that CPsquare does, but time will tell and it is already developing a substantial shared repertoire.

So community as curriculum is not problematic for me. I have seen it in my communities and it is evident in #rhizo14.  I blogged about it early on in the course – The Community is the Curriculum in rhizo14 

BUT

#rhizo14 is a course  – a learning community rather than a community of practice? As Sylvia Currie (responsible for the SCoPE community  – another community I am connected to)  pointed out on my blog (in a comment), and I have also heard Etienne say, it doesn’t really matter what you call it, so long as the basic principles for a community and curriculum are in place.

I am, as yet, unconvinced that this can happen in ‘a course’.

What I am finding interesting to follow through in my mind, is whether it is possible to have a ‘course’ about something like rhizomatic learning/thinking without contradicting the very premise on which it stands. I have heard Stephen Downes also talk about problems with the word ‘course’ in relation to cMOOCs.

For me the most interesting curriculum topic that has arisen in the #rhizo14 ‘community’ (and I still question whether this ‘course’ qualifies as a community – but I think only time will tell) is the topography of the learning environment.

In particular I am interested in the notion of ‘ learning spaces’.  Keith Hamon wrote a wonderful post on this relating it to a soccer game and field, and it relates very closely to work I have been doing with my colleague Roy Williams about the effect of the relationship between structure and openness in learning environments.

So today, I have spent some time reading around this idea of what ‘space’ means to a learner and the constraint that the idea of ‘community’ and ‘course’, if they are not carefully cultivated, might put on a learner in relation to their space for learning.

I think Ron Barnett in his book ‘A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty‘  has summed it up for me when he writes about the tension between singularity and universality. This tension is not, I think,  problematic in a network.  It might be a bit more problematic in a community, but I think it is very likely to be problematic in a course.

On p.148 Barnett writes:

‘There is here a key spatial tension: to let learn, to let go, implies singularity. By this I mean that the student is to be permitted to become what she wishes, to pursue her own intellectual inclinations, to identify sets of skills that she wishes to acquire to come into her own voice. However, the teacher in higher education has a kind of tacit ethical code of ensuring that that student comes to live in keeping with the standards of her intellectual and practical fields. The student is going to be judged by those standards, in any event, but standards of this kind imply universality.’

Whilst this quote obviously applies in a situation where a student is studying for credit or some sort of certificate, I think it also says a lot about the role and power of the ‘teacher’, ‘convener’ of any course – and how that power, knowingly or unknowingly, can constrain the learner’s space.

Barnett also writes on p.148 ‘The teacher’s presence may serve perniciously to reduce the students’ space’.

This for me explains why community, course and curriculum are an uneasy fit.

Further quotes from Barnett’s book that I think are relevant to #rhizo14 are:

p.148 ‘Given spaces in which to explore and to develop, students will become differentiated from each other’.

Singularity is a necessary outcome of space’.

This raises for me the tension between the pressure of community, course and curriculum and the learner’s desire/need to find their own space, their own voice in relation to their own learning.

And p.149 Barnett writes:

Giving space to students, therefore, brings into play ethical dilemmas, as the singularity-universal tension itself becomes necessarily apparent.’

And so I come full circle to the question of ethics in a course, curriculum and community, which I wrote about in the very first week of #rhizo14 – Rhizomatic Learning and Ethics

Establishing a Community Identity

In my last post I was thinking about some of the issues that surround the sustainability of a community. Thanks to Carmen, John and Keith for their thought-provoking comments. I am still thinking about these issues. I understand that communities need time to emerge and that a community culture is such that members are autonomous and can choose to engage from the core or periphery as they wish. My understanding is that as a ‘rule of thumb’, we can expect about 10% of an online community to be active at any one time (see Nancy White’s website) – so does the level of participation need to be carefully monitored?

In a community I am active in, we have asked the community to discuss what the community identity should be and have set up a wiki to do this.  One member has engaged with this and suggested that the purpose of the community should be to exert an influence on the higher and further education sector and therefore the community should maintain its title as a special interest group (SIG) for those interested in e-learner experiences.  On the wiki she has written:

The reason I thought it was worth keeping as a SIG was because, based on our research, we might seek to influence as a group (although where, and when, and how remains moot, as does what might be meant by ‘political’ decisions).  Describing us solely in terms of people who share a concern or passion seems to disenfranchise us of any potential influence.  I don’t think being a SIG stops us from also being a community of practice.

This wiki discussion has made me realise that if we are to think about a community in terms of one which has a political agenda, it must be a very different animal from one which has, for example, a mutual support agenda, which might be how you would describe some ‘parenting’ communities.

It does seem to be critical to determine the purpose of the community if it is to be sustainable. I can now see that I will have to go and read up on how politics and power work in a community of practice.