"Is distributed power a myth?"

Came across this and wondering what you all think.

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Thank you. The study and addressing of this issue has been an critical focus of mine for nearly 2 decades., and this specific article deserves an investment of critical self-refection before I respond.

Can’t wait for what you have to say!! @muiren

I definitely see this happening.

I agree that acknowledging power as independent from authority is important. I’ve appreciated the power mapping workshops I’ve taken with Sociocracy for All, but also think that more attention there would be helpful. I wonder about explicitly including power acknowledgment and mapping in meeting or reviews.

It does seem that acknowledging power dynamics to make them more visible is the best first step to helping shift them.
I have also seen that sometimes radical stepping down is critical to enable others to step into power, even if it’s uncomfortable for everyome :stuck_out_tongue:

It is ironic this discussion about the authority to control and distribute power takes place on a forum software platform created by Civilized Discourse Construction Kit, Inc.

As an early adopter of the software, every new feature I tried to open up for discussion was repeatedly dismissed with odd rationalisations that did not logically fit anything I said but derailed further consideration by the community. I shared less and less as I noticed recommendations previously dismissed, appearing later with considerable self-congratulation.

Then there were technical issues, novel configurations I wanted to discuss the feasibility of and hire someone to assist me with. I would painstakingly research and post my support request only to be condescended to by men asking questions already answered with little ambiguity in my original post. The result was if I couldn’t figure out how to do it myself, then it wouldn’t get done.

In what was to be my last such attempts to participate in the community, when I pointed out (as was often the case) that I had already provided the answer they wanted, I was put in the “Angry Black Woman” box, my account locked, the reason given, I was rude and needlessly argumentative with someone “only trying to be helpful”.

There is a pervasive denial of bad actors within institutions, a desire to believe this is an exception instead of a depressingly banal occurrence. The imagined rarity means there is rarely integration of cooperative psychosocial health and fitness that would discourage gaming the system from behind a mask of civility.

Bureaucracies (as currently understood) exist to mindlessly perpetuate themselves and will protect those adept at manipulating the system, so long as they pose no clear and present danger to the institution.

How is distributing power even a question? Without much fear of contradiction it would be a rare child above the age of five, who has not been normalised to the idea of various forms of authority that define, control and distribute power.

Hey there!
That sounds like a super rough experience. I understand there are bad actors. And more than that, there are systemic patterns to it.

Tell me real quick, is Civilized Discourse Construction Kit using a system of distributed power? I don’t know their governance system.
Just want to be sure what we’re talking about.

Discourse is an Oligarchic Business. There is zero transparency or accountability regarding their decision-making and exercise of executive authority.

As inferred in my previous post, there is no evidence it is possible to have a human social group where power is not distributed. The question is how power is defined the psychosocial literacy of the group, explicit and implicit ways power is controlled and distributed.

Particularly in White Western society, people of assumed privilege often signal their status with performative urgency in a number of ways, hence the exercise of power in “tell me real quick”.

I have never enjoyed the dubious luxury of assuming my world view is shared by others, so quick judgement does not serve me.

Let’s qualify your less than subtle “super rough experience” and “systemic patterns to it” since you decided to not respond to the main point of my post, instead focusing on the anecdote used for example.

I am not speaking “my truth” or stating what I “feel” is true. I am speaking truth to power, expressing in colloquial terms, matters of accept fact based on evidence.

While not as simple as black and white, as a general rule, the burden of proof is not upon those occupying the disenfranchised end of the privilege spectrum, but upon those served by the system.

Whenever and where ever BIPOC + LGBTQIA peoples step outside the narrow lanes of law and custom proscribed by beneficiaries of a system defined by intersectional racialised class we always face push back by means both subtle and gross.

The introduction to the forum software we are using describes it as created for long-form discourse. Today anything longer than a tweet is an essay, and while I may seem pedantic to you, my reputation is for use of a bare minimum needed to avoid unnecessary misunderstanding.

The culturally homogeneous development team for Discourse presents without evidence their software is promoted as a “natural immune system to defend itself from trolls, bad actors, and spammers”.

For millennia wars have been fought by diplomats through rhetorical sophistry under the strictest forms of civility which in no way expresses respect or secures justice.

An example born of a more humble social class, the blood sport of southern women’s parlour conversation.

The idea of being outwardly “nice” or “polite” is a well documented trope, one with increasing frequency used by Perception Managers in defence of fragility in theatres of religion and politics, and commonly weaponised with great precision against people of lower class for millennia. This obsession with performative civility would be comical if the consequences were not so often life-threatening.

I cannot code switch, this is my natural speaking voice. Though a literate man and accomplished surgeon, my late father thought psychology was not based on real science and went to his grave believing autism something only White children have, interpreting my affect as intentional, and describing me to others as “blunt as an anvil, and does not suffer fools gladly”.

Authority, Power, and its control and distribution are managed through perception.
Here is a “quick”, clear, unambiguous, inarguable example.
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson • Bill Moyers Interview (Snopes)

That truism is as relevant today, as when first uttered. It is not a pattern within an otherwise just system, but the defining characteristic of this intersectional racialised class system as a whole and any suggestion to the contrary is unsupportable by virtue of reason or evidence.

I’m really appreciating the conversation here as an initial prompt to respond to an article has grown into the application of power in this thread itself.

On “Is distributed power a myth?”

I agree, authority and power are not one and the same. My understanding of power is that power has sources.

  • Roles such as secretary of a circle give the power to shape what’s emphasized in documentation
  • People such as the thousands that show up at a protest give the power to influence public narrative
  • Money such as grants gives foundations the power to resource some projects and not others
  • Privilege such as that which comes from being a cis-man or white or a fluent English speaker within the US context means having power that comes from being more likely to be assumed to be competent.

In other words, authority is just one source of power, so an organization that seeks to truly distribute power cannot do so through only distributing authority.

I also agree that power just “is” as stated in this quote from the article

Power is. Not over, not with, it is as it is; a natural phenomenon that flows in, out, between, and among.

However, I also differ from this article in two major ways.

First, I find this next statement incomplete.

Power is a flowing drive of everything to self-realize. As everything is connected and interdependent, all power is connected and interdependent as well. It flows through the connection, resonates, serves, and nourishes more powerful self-realization.

I believe self-actualization is important, but that a just world requires more than self-actualization. Self-actualization is distinctly individual whereas I believe we must consider ourselves as interdependent with land and spirit and community and time. I’ve really appreciated this article in describing what’s beyond self-actualization: The Blackfoot Wisdom that Inspired Maslow's Hierarchy –

Quotes below:

(Self Actualization) Maslow appeared to ask, “how do we become self-actualized?”. Many First Nation communities, though they would not have used the same word, might be more likely to believe that we arrive on the planet self-actualized. Ryan Heavy Head explained the difference through the analogy of earning a college degree. In Western culture, you earn a degree after paying tuition, attending classes, and proving sufficient mastery of your area of study. In Blackfoot culture, “it’s like you’re credentialed at the start. You’re treated with dignity for that reason, but you spend your life living up to that.” While Maslow saw self-actualization as something to earn, the Blackfoot see it as innate. Relating to people as inherently wise involves trusting them and granting them space to express who they are (as perhaps manifested by the permissiveness with which the Siksika raise their children)rather than making them the best they can be. For many First Nations, therefore, self-actualization is not achieved; it is drawn out of an inherently sacred being who is imbued with a spark of divinity.

(Community Actualization) As Maslow witnessed in the Blackfoot Giveaway, many First Nation cultures see the work of meeting basic needs, ensuring safety, and creating the conditions for the expression of purpose as a community responsibility, not an individual one. Blackstock refers to this as “Community Actualization.” Edgar Villanueva (2018) offers a beautiful example of how deeply ingrained this way of thinking is among First Nations in his book Decolonizing Wealth. He quotes Dana Arviso, Executive Director of the Potlatch Fund and member of the Navajo tribe, who recalls a time she asked Native communities in the Cheyenne River territory about poverty:

“They told me they don’t have a word for poverty,” she said. “The closest thing that they had as an explanation for poverty was ‘to be without family.’” Which is basically unheard of. “They were saying it was a foreign concept to them that someone could be just so isolated and so without any sort of a safety net or a family or a sense of kinship that they would be suffering from poverty.” (p. 151)

Ryan Heavy Head explains that such communal cooperation is especially important for the Blackfoot because of their relationship to place, something Maslow entirely omitted in his theories:

…the one thing that [Maslow] really missed was the Indigenous relationship to place. Without that, what he’s looking at as self-actualization doesn’t actually happen. There’s a reason people aren’t critical of their tribe: you’ve got to live with them forever.

In other words, having your life bound up with those around you for its whole duration can support creating a culture of generosity, trust, and cooperation, rather than one of inequality and individualism. Being in conflict with permanent neighbors, while also living in such a communal culture, can prove costly and stressful. Learning to cooperate, forgiving wrongdoing, and pursuing the sharing of resources and wisdom make life much more tolerable in these conditions.
The skillfulness to nourish a community-wide family, keep each person fed, live in harmony with the land, and minimize internal and external conflicts is enshrined handed down from generation to generation in First Nations. Because knowledge can vanish as people pass on, each generation sees it as their responsibility to perpetuate their culture by adding to the tribe’s communal wisdom and passing on ancestral teachings to children and grandchildren. As Cindy Blackstock (2019) explains:

(Cultural Perpetuity) First Nations often consider their actions in terms of the impacts of the “seven generations.” This means that one’s actions are informed by the experience of the past seven generations and by considering the consequences for the seven generations to follow.

Many First Nations have developed both formal rituals and informal apprenticeships for the transfers of wisdom from elders to youngsters to ensure the community is able to support self-actualization and community-actualization in perpetuity.

As Blackfoot scholar Billy Wadsorth (of the Blood, or Kanai Tribe) summarizes in dialogue with Cindy Blackstock (2011), Maslow did not “fully situate the individual within the context of community.” If he had done so, and also more deeply integrated the Blackfoot perspective, “the model would be centered on multi-generational community actualization versus on individual actualization and transcendence.”

Second, I think that there was something missing in this article about how power is natural, but just like any force of nature, it can cause destruction as well as healing. Water can wash away our homes and our lives. Water is also what sustains us. Power can create beauty but it can also kill. It can be over or with. On a bit of a side note: I like this analogy of water and power because I think healthy power is like healthy water. Power is healthy when it ebbs and flows, when people are attuned to its movements, and when it is available to all.

On Discourse.org

Tell me about it!

We also use Discourse at Youth Power Coalition, a nonprofit I co-founded with youth leaders and adult allies to build a movement for youth-led collective impact, but not without some hesitancy.

Why we use Discourse: Why I chose Discourse for my community led organization - praise - Discourse Meta

Why I hesitate: I too have experienced things not getting done if I couldn’t figure out how to do it myself and I too have criticisms of the idea of “civil discourse”.

My biggest frustration in terms of things not getting done has been around accessibility:

My guess is that because current software engineers contributing to Discourse code do not experience these accessibility challenges themselves, they are not prioritizing them.

I actually think this is one of the greatest pitfalls of self-organization. In self-organization, the idea is that people are empowered to build the solution that they need. However, when people most impacted by an issue point out the problem, a general rule is that it should be on those who are benefitting from that problem to do the work of fixing it. For example, I’m taught as a woman that I need to learn negotiation skills in order to be equitably compensated. In other words, I’m being told that ensuring equitable pay is my responsibility. Instead, I’d like to hear from men, who are disproportionately in positions of power that determine financial compensation, that they’re taking on the responsibility of creating equitable pay structures. I’d be interested in having a dedicated discussion about this element of self-organization.

(Update: Just saw release notes from September 1st that they added a Skip to Main Content link for screen-readers. That’s one step forward!)

On “civility”

In We Will Not Cancel Us, adrienne marie brown defines abuse, conflict, harm, critique, contradiction, misunderstanding, and mistakes in ways that I think is incredibly helpful when understanding the nuances of discourse.

abuse: behaviors (physical, emotional, economic, sexual, and many more) intended to gain, exert, and maintain power over another person or in a group. When abuse is present, professional support, space, and boundaries are needed.

conflict: disagreement, difference, or argument between two or more people. Can be personal, political, structural.

harm: the suffering, loss, pain, and impact that can occur both in conflict and in instances of abuse, as well as in misunderstandings steeped in differences of life experience, opinion, or needs. Harm is what needs healing—working with individual healers, therapists, and in community to understand where the hurt is and what it would look like to not be ruled by it. There may be power differences, and there will most likely be dynamics of privilege and oppression at play. Conflicts can be direct and named, or indirect and felt. Conflicts rooted in genuine difference are rarely resolved quickly and easily. Conflicts can be held in relationship and/or group through naming both the differences and the impact of the differences, facing the roots of the issues, and honest conversation, especially supported conversation such as mediation.

critique: an analysis or assessment of someone’s work or practices. Critique doesn’t need resolution but acceptance and discernment—you won’t please everyone, take what can grow you and keep it moving. Critiques are part of how we sharpen each other.

contradiction: the presence of ideas, beliefs, or aspects of a situation that are opposed to one another. Contradictions can be handled by widening our perspective, acknowledging that these oppositional truths co-exist.

misunderstanding: incorrectly interpreting or not understanding what is being communicated. Something that can be resolved through a clarifying conversation, and if not addressed, can fester into conflict.

mistakes: when someone straight up messes up. Says something offensive or triggering, mishandles a situation, is dishonest, has a negative impact in spite of positive intentions, or doesn’t think something through. Mistakes can be resolved with an authentic, informed apology.

adrienne maree brown. We Will Not Cancel Us (Emergent Strategy Series)

I’ve observed a conflation of conflict, contradiction, and critique with harm and abuse, and this conflation affects people differently based on systems of oppression like race and gender. Two people can say the same exact thing but one person is interpreted as being abusive and the other as giving constructive criticism. When this happens, the first is policed while the second is heard.

But it’s not just about two people on different ends of the privilege spectrum saying the same thing, because people on the disenfranchised end experience the world differently and therefore share different realities. And what people on the disenfranchised end experience is trauma.

When I’m traumatized, I still deserve to be heard, even if I’m shouting, even if I’m crying, even if my thoughts are scattered. Telling people that they will be heard only when they express themselves according to the rules of civility as set by those who are in dominant positions is yet another way to silence those who are oppressed.

When I think about what a more just and inclusive discourse may be, I imagine one that’s rooted in relationship, that celebrates the diversity of how we all express ourselves, that centers the voices of those most impacted by inequity, that acknowledges multiple realities, that heals.

On systems

Given that the above is true, what give me hope today is this:

Racism and inequity are products of design. They can be redesigned.
— Caroline Hill, Michelle Molitor, and Christine Ortiz

Full article below.

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Similar to @deborah.chang, I appreciate you sharing @muiren .

Equity in the open source and IT sector in general is certainly a whole topic unto itself!

Some thoughts on Discourse

I hadn’t previously looked into Discourse’s governance, but here’s a thread about why we chose Discourse as our forums platform. The gist is: it’s free, open source, and functional.

It does seem as if the Discourse core project is managed by an oligarchy, as indicated by the core team:

The community seems to agree despite Jeff’s softening of the concept:

and despite having a larger group of contributors: Contributors to discourse/discourse · GitHub

I have mostly had experience with some plugin developers, like the folks behind the Multilingual plugin, which was actually funded originally by Wikipedia but was written by the folks at the Pavilion Coop who are graciously providing mentorship and training to volunteer coders helping maintain the plugin.

One of the reasons we chose it is because it has a pretty active community of developers working on various plugins and features, however I too have seen that the scope of the vision is relatively specific and there’s not really space for changing it. I found this when I was looking into sub-thread functionality, apparently Jeff has a pretty strong opinion on that and it’s just what they decided. In order to change it, you’d probably have to fork the project - which would be a huge amount of work to maintain I imagine.

There’s no question: it’s a dictatorship more or less. Hopefully beneficial, but those things are never cut and dry.

Equity in IT and Open Source

Indeed, equity in IT and open source projects are a significant issue!

It seems many projects, despite embracing apparently egalitarian ideas like “open source”, are fraught with power issues. Despite having a decentralized contribution system like github, many projects have often highly socially privileged leaders who are notorious for inappropriate social interactions.

An example:

Linux is probably the largest and more influential open source project in the world and it has certainly struggled to keep decent social interactions - and that’s not to even mention addressing equity issues…

Indeed… There are a number of issues with the underlying precepts which drive much of FOSS culture - it’s a group of highly hobbyist, DIY oriented people, most of which are white men who benefit from easy social access to IT culture and the underlying elements include:

  • the assumption that people have time to do a bunch of uncompensated labor for many open source projects (except where projects are supported by projects)
  • that people should put their energy and attention where they want to put it and create what they want to see in the world

This means that the work done by open source projects rarely benefits topics like accessibility, or is made to be accessible to anyone other than the people doing the coding.

On one hand, there is a great benefit to the “anyone can contribute” mentality and the call for everyone to contribute, but on the other hand it turns out to be rather exclusive.

I’ve created a separate thread to talk about accessibility and equity in the FOSS sector, as it’s certainly it’s own rabbit hole!

And all that isn’t even touching on the fact that non-oligarchic governance doesn’t seem to be a

This Friday’s Ecosystems Circle meeting features a proposal to establish a “Free and Open Source Content Sector Circle” under SoFA’s Ecosystems circle which will probably start with a project of exploring open source projects which use self governing systems. I’m very curiuos to find out what systems are in use! I know some larger projects like Mozilla and Ubuntu follow somewhat conventional and non-self governance based systems as best as I can tell (though Ubuntu has a community council). Meet.coop (an up and coming zoom alternative based on BigBlueButton) seems to be using a more grassroots self governance.

But to be honest, I’m very curious to find what kind of governance drives open source communities other than (hopefully beneficial) dictatorships! And perhaps SoFA can break into the FOSS community.

Again, this is really suitable for a discussion unto itself though, so I’ve created a little thread for more on that:

So… what about the myth of distributed power?

It seems relatively clear as the article originally suggests:

Yes, distributed power can be a false promise - like how “anyone can edit” makes it seem like a project is community driven, when it’s really not (as with Discourse). Of course… in theory someone can fork a project (like discourse) and make their own project based on it (this does happen), but in practice: who can actually do that? What are the litany of social contingencies which impact that false ideal?

I notice the amount of power in knowledge and access to knowledge is significant. I see it even in my relatively homogenous community how me knowing how to do computery things makes such a big difference and creates real tensions…

I do think though, that when care is taken, and power structures are acknowledged that… at least this is the best way I know to try to confront inequitable concentrations of power.

But in many instances, there isn’t even an attempt at self governance, however. It seems relatively clear that in the case of Discourse, they are pretty deliberately just a core group that have the say. Much less the questioning and proactive distribution of power…

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I very much appreciate the paragraphs on earning self-actualization vs. living up to already achieved self-actualization. The only thing that confuses me there is that I would have paraphrased self-actualization as expression of who people are, but maybe I’m not tuned into Maslow enough to even see what was meant originally.

I appreciate this discussion. It reminds me of how my mind was blown when contribution was listed as a need in Nonviolent Communication. In the mainstream view of homo economicus, contribution - as one part of interdependence - shouldn’t happen and shouldn’t benefit the giver. That’s how NVC is going one crucial step beyond Maslow by acknowledging interdependence, and that made a needs-based approach even worth doing from my point of view. Without that, it just falls flat instantly.
Yet, what that misses and what you point out is a collective approach in community actualization. Taking all of our learnings and applying them on a collective level (like collective responsibility, trauma, action, sense-making, etc) is what has my interest.

I can’t speak to discourse at all; this is my first use of it, and I have no idea what their processes are like. I hope the concerns are being heard by their community in a transparent way.

Yes. Another thing I appreciate from NVC is the fact that no way to communicate is right or wrong. Civility helps make things more effective but it’s not the only way. Communication is about how we speak but also about how we hear, and we can choose to listen even when it’s hard. Both sides have to be held here.
Simple example: given how long and wide this thread is, it takes much longer to be able to respond. That’s neither good nor bad, and not your fault or my fault. But it’s definitely a reality.

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