Holarchies of Participation

Ok, so I’m getting too into these ‘of Participation’ posts, I swear it will end soon and I’ll get to talking about the concrete concepts that I’m going to pin on them. But already I’ve started to bring up this notion of a holarchy of participation, and it will come up again in later posts, so I’m going to lay it down here.

A ‘holarchy’ is a term coined by Arthur Koestler, which I came to by way of Ken Wilber in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. It’s a great term, and I won’t be able to do it justice, so just pick up SES. There is a decent article here. The atomic unit of a holarchy is a holon: something that is simultaneously a part and a whole. See the wikipedia article on holons for further information. It is a powerful concept to understand the world, that nothing can be fully explained without looking at in context of that which makes it up, and that of which it is a part. An easy example is atoms to molecules to cells to organs to organisms. Each level is made up of sub-parts, and in turn serves as a part in the whole of the next level.

So what this implies for architectures of participation is that they don’t stand in isolation, that they work best when the component parts that make up a given architecture are themselves architectures of participation. The World Wide Web is the most obvious in this whole/part dynamic, as it is enabled by units of open source software like the Apache web server, and it in turn serves as the substrate for many more architectures of participation, like the Wikipedia (or indeed any of Benkler’s examples). Going one level down, open source software was enabled by the Internet, since it was the communication medium that made it possible for many collaborators to work on the same project across time zones and schedules. And we are starting to see what one level up will look like, with the Web 2.0 meme, where an architecture of participation of online classifieds (craigslist) can be combined with an open api (google maps) to create a new whole: housingmaps. (though I feel this example suffers a bit as google maps may be an architecture of participation, but it’s not a full holarchy of participation, since it rests on proprietary software and geographic data. But that’s a topic for another post).

The mashups of web 2.0, combining services from multiple sources, for me points to the next level of holons. The parts in this case are the web services provided by various organizations, and there needs to be a critical mass of them before the next level of participation arises on top of them. The thing that I’m curious about is the fact that most of the web services are provided by commercial companies, and how much a holarchy of participation can stand if all its parts are not participatory. Interesting API’s are provided, but for the most part the code behind the API’s is closed source. Will ‘truly open’ apis arise, where the base data is fully exposed, with users/developers able to create any api they want on top of it? I believe this is where things like google maps will start to suffer, since there is no way they can truly open up the geographic data, as they do not own it and don’t have the right to distribute it. Something like ebay has a better chance, since they are able to let go of most all the data, as it’s theirs, and the important value is in the trust mechanism (which starts to speak to a compelling model for geographic data, since navtech/teleatlas own that trust mechanism for geodata, but it’s a very coarse one: data from those two companies is good, tiger census is not as good, ect., instead of the fine grained architecture of participation that ebay has created around trust in buying and selling. What if we had fine grained trust mechanism for various data providers in various areas of the world? Flawed, but grist for the mill of future posts).

As for ideas of what the ‘whole’ of the next level will look like, that will have to be in future posts. The notion of the ‘semantic web’ is the closest I’ve seen, but I feel it misses some key aspects of it. In my mind it relies too much on computers to sort things out, while I see more of a collaborative web. That it’s not going to be these automatic ‘agents’ running around, but it’s going to be people who filter and process information, we’re just going to be able to greater rely on that processing of others, develop trust and collaboration mechanisms that make others people’s data and habits much more useful. Perhaps that will serve as a jumping point to semantic web nirvana, or perhaps it may just take it towards something else entirely.

Random visions of the future aside, the point of all this is that participation does not take place in isolation. It’s harder to make an true open source project from an ‘open sourced’ proprietary code base, even if it’s very good, because the original authors weren’t thinking in a collaborative mode. Similarly it’s easier to build new systems and architectures on top of ones that are already collaborative. The essence seeps out somehow, and the power of participation allows a repurposing old pieces for new uses. If the building blocks can’t be modified, aren’t themselves open to tinkering and new purposes, then just how far the architecture of participation that is built on top is inherently limited. In some cases that might not be important, and indeed the commercialized web 2.0 seems to posit that question. Though I could see a world where it ends up crashing for just that reason. Indeed Douglas Rushkoff seems to suggest in his Open Source Democracy that the whole reason the first bubble burst was because investors got away from the community and the participation that made the World Wide Web in the first place. Bubble 2.0 suggests that in this next round business is figuring out how to effectively exploit these architectures of participation (with gems like: Network effects from user contributions are the key to market dominance in the Web 2.0 era. ).

Perhaps instead of the market dominating users, we are seeing the rise of users dominating markets. Maybe we’re sick of being dominated by our markets. And whenever one of these bubble 2.0 companies leans too hard on their users, starts to ‘monetize’ us, poof we’ll be gone, off to greener pastures where our collaboration and participation is less exploited. We pick off the best ideas, and just make them better in a more open source, cooperative manner.


3 thoughts on “Holarchies of Participation

  1. Pingback: devlog » small pieces of semantic web nirvana
  2. Pingback: devlog » small pieces of semantic web nirvana
  3. “I believe this is where things like google maps will start to suffer, since there is no way they can truly open up the geographic data, as they do not own it and don’t have the right to distribute it.”

    Oddly enough, I came to realize this over the course of the last few weeks. People are going berserk here in my office over Google Earth and to a large extent rightfully so. Nobody can argue GE and GM are amazing pieces of software that definitely lower the bar for the use of geodata : no more sluggish web mapping applications, images all over the place on top of which one can overlay one’s features, etc.

    Well, I reached the limit of the potential of GE as a tool for an architecture of participation. My colleagues, although fond of GE, are a bit irritated at the fact that we only have Landsat coverage for our city. My reaction was to ask Google if it was possible to buy high res satellite imagery for my area and make it available for others to use by giving it back to Google so they could shove it in their image database. The rationale is pretty simple : I buy 5000 $ worth of high res imagery for city X, you buy imagery for city Y and we can share it through the Google database. Turns out that’s not the way it works. If I want to view high res data for my city, I’d have to buy GE Enterprise edition to use my imagery as a backdrop. My level of hype relative to Google has gone down since then. It’s still unquestionably a wonderful piece of software, but I’m now more conscious of its limitations as a tool for an infrastructure of participation.

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