Doug Engelbart, Human Systems, Tribes, and Collective Wisdom

Sunday, December 9 was the 50th anniversary of Doug Engelbart’s The Mother of All Demos. There was a symposium in his honor at The Computer History Museum and much media and Twitter activity throughout.

Among the many things said and written that caught my eye that weekend was a Twitter exchange between Greg Lloyd and Mark Szpakowski. Greg tweeted a quote from this Los Angeles Review of Books article:

“At the very heart of Engelbart’s vision was a recognition of the fact that it is ultimately humans who have to evolve, who have to change, not technology.”

Mark responded:

And yet 99% of the Engelbart tribe work has been on the techie Tool System. http://www.dougengelbart.org/firsts/human-system.html … used to say “coming soon”; now it has disappeared. Time to join up with recent progress on Social Technologies for Complex Adaptive Anticipatory Human Systems?

I agree with Mark, with one caveat: It depends on how you define the “Engelbart tribe.” Let’s explore this caveat first.

Tribes and Movements

There are many folks specializing in process design (what Doug would have categorized as “Human Systems”) who consider Doug a mentor or, at worst, an inspiration. I’m one of them, although I didn’t start (exclusively) from this place when I started working with him in 2000.

Three others in this group have been direct mentors to me: Jeff Conklin, who spent a good amount of time with Doug, and Gail and Matt Taylor, who didn’t, but who knew of him and his work. David Sibbet, the graphic facilitation pioneer, came across Doug’s work in 1972 and worked some with Geoff Ball, who was on Doug’s SRI team doing research on facilitating groups with a shared display. Those four people alone make for an impressive, accomplished, world-changing group.

There are also many, many more folks doing important work in human systems who aren’t familiar with Doug’s work at all or who don’t identify with him for whatever reason. Doug himself thought that lots of what was happening in both open source software development communities and in the Agile Movement were highly relevant, although he had nothing to do with either. At the Symposium celebrating Doug, Christina Engelbart, Doug’s daughter and the keeper of his intellectual legacy, connected the Lean movement to her dad’s work and invited Brant Cooper, the author of The Lean Entrepreneur, to speak.

An effective movement is an inclusive one. What matters more: Seeing Doug’s vision through, or establishing tribal boundaries? If the former, then it’s important to acknowledge and embrace the work of those who may not have the same heroes or conceptual frames of reference.

I don’t think many of us who loved Doug and were inspired by his vision have been very good at this, and unfortunately, our tribalism has extended to technologists too. After the Symposium, I had drinks with my friend, James Cham, who is a long-time fan of Doug’s, but who wasn’t lucky enough to spend much time with him. James told me that Dylan Field (co-founder of Figma Design) was inspired by Doug and that he had hosted his own celebration of the Demo that same Sunday that 300 people attended. Amjad Masad (founder of Repl.it, a tool that Doug would have loved) gave a thoughtful toast about Doug’s work there.

I didn’t know either Dylan or Amjad, and I certainly didn’t know that they tracked Doug’s work and were inspired it. I’m fairly certain that the organizers of the official celebration didn’t either. That’s pretty remarkable, given how small of a place Silicon Valley is. Now that we know, I hope we can start making some fruitful connections.

Capabilities and Collective Wisdom

The movement of folks committed to Doug’s larger vision is much larger than the “official” tribe to which Mark referred in his tweet. But even if we take into account this larger group, I think Mark’s criticism still holds.

Doug sought to make the world collectively smarter. He believed the path to achieving this would be a co-evolutionary process involving both tool and human systems. In other words, new tools would give us new capabilities, assuming we learned how to master them. Those new capabilities would inspire us to create even better tools. Rinse, and repeat.

As my friend, Travis Kriplean, pointed out to me this morning, we can already test this hypothesis. Technology has already evolved exponentially. Have our collective capabilities — or even more importantly, our collective wisdom — evolved with it?

Let’s narrow the question. Our ability to capture, store, and share information has improved by leaps and bounds since Doug’s Demo in 1968. Has our collective memory increased as a result of that?

If you were pinning me down, I would guess, “no.” The mere existence of those tools don’t guarantee that we remember more. Furthermore, the tools have a nasty side effect of overwhelm. But, these tools certainly create the potential for us to remember more — we just have to figure out how.

Right now, my eight- and 14-year old nephews have access to this blog, where they can read many of my innermost thoughts, including stories I wrote about them when they were younger. Right now, they can explore my Flickr, Instagram, and YouTube accounts without even having to ask for permission. If they asked for permission, I would probably let them go through my Google Maps Timeline, which is automatically harvested from my cell phone’s location data and which contains a comprehensive journal of my every day travels over the past few years. They already have access to lots of information about me, including my efforts to distill little bits and pieces of my experience. Most of this is purely the result of technology, with a little bit coming from my occasional discipline of sharing thoughts here and there.

But does any of this help them become wiser? If not, is it because our technology has not evolved enough, or is it because our human practices have not evolved with the technology?

The best example I know of a human system that evolved with the technology are wikis in general and Wikipedia in particular. Not enough people realize that wikis and Wikipedias aren’t just tools. They are a wonderful marriage of human and tool systems that created fundamentally new collective capabilities, exactly the type of thing that Doug envisioned. They are also 20-year old examples. I think this speaks very much to Mark’s critique.

CBC Radio Piece on Wikipedia and the Future of Knowledge

I was one of the featured commentators on a two-part CBC radio program about Wikipedia. Each part is just shy of an hour. If you’re new to Wikipedia, start with part one. If you’re interested in a broader philosophical discussion about community, knowledge, intellectual property, and the Internet, go directly to part two (where I’m more heavily featured).

I had mixed feelings about the program. After part one came out, Sue Gardner (who is heavily featured) asked me what I thought about the piece. I said I didn’t like it very much. She laughed, and pointed out that I was not the audience for that piece.

She’s right of course. The first part featured the voices of many of my friends, people who are deeply embedded and knowledgeable about the community. Kat Walsh was particularly well-spoken, and it’s worth listening to part one just to hear her commentary.

However, I had difficulty enjoying the first part in particular. First, there were lots of mostly inconsequential, but annoying factual errors. I was horrified to hear myself repeatedly described as an “IT consultant,” something that I’ve never even resembled.

Second, I was bothered by who wasn’t included in the piece. In the first part, several of us pay homage to Ward Cunningham, who invented the wiki and who is thoughtful and brilliant. Instead of having us speak for him, why didn’t the reporter just talk to him directly? I also felt like I and others were taking up space — especially in part one — that would have been better served by other members of the community. For example, Pete Forsyth (who has a cameo at the beginning of part two) is one of the most well-spoken leaders in the Wikipedia community. I would have loved to have heard much more from him, and I would have gladly sacrificed my voice to do so.

All that said, I think that the piece was solid overall, especially part two. If you listen to either part, I’d love to hear what you think.

WikiWednesday in San Francisco: State of the Wiki Ecosystem

Stephen LaPorte and I are hosting an informal discussion in San Francisco on Wednesday, October 2, 2013 on the state of the wiki universe. We’re hoping to get a group of people actively working in the wiki world as well as “old timers” in the community (you know who you are, and we want to see you there) and people who simply love wikis to come together to discuss the following questions:

  • What’s happening right now?
  • What’s changed?
  • What’s the future that we’d like to see?

It will be held at the Wikimedia Foundation (149 New Montgomery Street, 3rd Floor, San Francisco) from 6:30-9pm.

In the spirit of wikis, it will be an open and participatory gathering, and we’re expecting interesting people to attend. We’ll pull together funds to order pizza and drinks.

Please feel free to spread the word and bring guests. Just be sure to RSVP in the comments below so that we know how many to expect.

Measuring Mindshare

My friend, Jerry Michalski, recently tweeted a question about collaboratively authoring documents using GitHub. I didn’t see his original tweet, but I saw a followup exchange between him and Howard Rheingold, and so I pointed both of them to Ward Cunningham’s Smallest Federated Wiki. I’ve seen some followup exchanges, and I’m happy that the pointer may have triggered something interesting.

I also realized that, despite admiring Ward’s project from afar for years now, I have never blogged or tweeted about it.  I’ve mentioned it to folks, but not to Ward directly, and I even wanted to incorporate it into a client project last year that I didn’t end up doing. I don’t know that Ward knows how interesting or important I think his explorations have been. Hopefully, he does now.

It got me thinking about how hard it is to measure mindshare, especially in this day and age. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in regard to my own work, recently. For the past few years, I haven’t spent much time thinking about who reads this blog or any of my other writings, but every once in a while, I’d get some signal that people are paying attention. Sometimes, it would be from people I knew, who would often allude to something I wrote face-to-face. Other times, it would be from completely random people.

I’m thinking more consciously about mindshare again, partially because I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do next, and I’m being a bit more transparent about it here than I’m probably comfortable. But I’m also doing it because I wonder how much of an impact my thinking and my writing is making in the world.

My numbers tell me that a tiny corner of the universe is paying attention. It’s smaller than when I first started the blog and when I last seriously paid attention to this sort of thing, but it’s still there. Still, it’s hard to really interpret what those numbers mean and what part of the story they’re not reflecting.

With Changemaker Bootcamp, I’ve gotten many more signals, and they’ve surprised, moved, and motivated me. When I started my first pilot five months ago, I posted a call of participants here, not expecting anyone to respond. Not only did a handful of people respond, they included some I hadn’t heard from in a long time, and two people I didn’t know at all, including Anna Castro, who became my first bootcamper.

My “official” launch a few weeks ago triggered more signals. I’ve heard directly from interesting folks I didn’t know before, and I’ve discovered a bunch of new folks from my newsletter signups.

Thinking back to my reflection about Ward, I’m now wondering what kind of mindshare I have beyond the signals I’ve received. I know that much of it is latent and invisible, but knowing that it’s out there is a source of encouragement.

One of the challenges with working online is our lack of literacy around feedback mechanisms. There are actually more feedback mechanisms online than there are face-to-face, but we don’t necessarily understand or pay attention to them. Regardless, it’s important to remember that those feedback mechanisms only tell part of the story, that mindshare is immeasurable, and that it’s important to keep sharing in ways that others can benefit.

It’s also a good reminder that we all have the ability to give feedback without requiring any special tools. It’s so simple, it’s easy to think it’s not important enough to do. That’s too bad. It can be very meaningful, and the world would be a better place if we all took the time to do it more often.

Group Identity and Network Leadership: A Tribute to Kat Walsh

Kat Walsh (middle) gives out barnstars at a San Francisco Wikipedia meetup in 2007. Also in the picture are Ben Kovitz (left) and Dirk Riehle (right).

Yesterday, the Wikimedia Foundation announced the election results for its three community board seats. I was happy to see my friends, Phoebe Ayers and SJ Klein, elected to the board, and Delphine Menard, elected to the Funds Dissemination Committee. Those three are grizzled veterans, and they will continue to do great things in those roles. I was also happy to see some new blood, which is critical for the success of any project.

And, I was disappointed to see that Kat Walsh, the longest running community member on the board and current board chair, was not re-elected. In the grand scheme of things, that’s probably for the best. I’m a firm believer in term limits for nonprofit board members, and if the Wikimedia Foundation had had them, Kat would have been termed out at some point anyway. I also think that this will be a wonderful opportunity for her to take a break from the drama that Wikimedia board members have to deal with on an ongoing basis.

I don’t know anyone in the Wikimedia community who doesn’t love and respect Kat, and she’ll continue to be a community leader, board seat or not. I want to tell a personal story about Kat that says a lot about what it means to be a leader, especially in a network and in a community.

I’ve been part of the larger wiki community since 2000 (pre-dating Wikipedia). I was friends with Wikipedia contributors in its earliest days, but I only edited sporadically and anonymously. Because of my role in the larger wiki community, I was invited to participate at the first Wikimania in August 2005, where I met many Wikipedians for the first time. I created my user account shortly thereafter, but I didn’t make my first non-anonymous edit until November 2006, and only then at the urging of my friend, Erik Möller.

What does it mean to be a Wikipedian? Obviously, if you edit Wikipedia frequently, you are a Wikipedian, but how frequently? The Wikimedia Foundation currently defines “active contributors” as anyone who edits five or more times a month, but not all edits are created equal. There are the edits that I specialize in — mostly typos and occasional citations — and there are the edits that make Wikipedia sing, the ones that require painstaking research and eloquent craftsmanship. Does one type of edit make you more of a community member than another?

And do you have to be an editor to be a Wikipedian? What about the Wikipedia enthusiast, the people who evangelize Wikipedia to all of their friends and colleagues, despite never having clicked the edit button? What about the people who consistently donate money? My dad has nary a clue of my involvement with Wikimedia over the years, but he has enthusiastically given money every year completely on his own accord, and he waxes poetic about the project. He almost certainly evangelizes it more than I do. Is my dad a Wikipedian?

Most importantly, who decides who gets to be a Wikipedian? What is it that makes a Wikipedian feel like he or she is a Wikipedian?

Back in the day, I never felt like I was a Wikipedian, and I was perfectly fine with that. Whenever I participated in Wikimedia things, people were always very friendly, and I never felt excluded. I just didn’t feel like I was enough of a contributor to consider myself a Wikipedian.

That all changed on November 10, 2007, the day I first met Kat. Phoebe had organized a San Francisco meetup, and Kat was visiting from Washington, D.C. Even though I knew folks there, I was sitting quietly in a corner somewhere, when Kat approached me and introduced herself.

“Hi, I’m Kat,” she said.

“Hi, I’m Eugene,” I responded.

“Thanks for coming! Here, have a barnstar.”

Barnstars are the virtual currency of the wiki community. Anyone can award a barnstar to anyone else for their contributions to the community. Kat made it a point to carry around real-life barnstars, which are beautiful and heavy, and give them out to people at meetups. She did this entirely on her own accord and at her own expense.

I knew who Kat was, and I knew what barnstars were. As I said, I had never felt excluded from the community before — I was at a Wikipedia meetup, after all — but when Kat handed me that barnstar, that was the first time I felt welcomed. It was the first time I felt like I was a Wikipedian.

As networks mature, they sometimes start spending an inordinate amount of time on issues like governance, where defining things like community membership suddenly becomes more important. (This is especially endemic to networks with a strong top-down element, such as funder-initiated networks, but it’s true across the board.) This is where the organizational mindset tends to kick in, and people are easily sucked into complex and difficult questions around criteria. At some level, it’s unavoidable. However, I think that people spend way more time on these issues than are merited (and often earlier than necessary).

Worse, it often comes at the expense of what really matters. Human things, like welcoming people. It may sound basic and perhaps too squishy for some tastes, but it’s incredibly important, and in my experience, groups neglect these basic human patterns to their detriment.

When Groupaya designed the Delta Dialogues last year, we incorporated some sophisticated tools, because we were dealing with a wicked problem and a toxic culture. While we were incredibly skilled at using those tools, that’s not what differentiated our process from the countless other processes that had been tried in that region.

Our secret sauce wasn’t our tools. It was our attention to our participants’ humanity. It was our instinct to open the Dialogues by having every participant describe their favorite place in the Delta. It was our instinct to rotate the locations of those meetings, to have different stakeholders host them, so that other stakeholders could break bread in each other’s homes and get a better sense of who they were as people. It was how we incorporated both head and heart into our process. None of this was brain surgery, and yet, no one else was doing it.

Back in 2007, Kat was already a long-time contributor and board member. All of that was simply status. You can have those things and not be exercising any leadership. Going out on her own and finding simple, human ways to make others feel welcome — that’s leadership, and you don’t need any kind of official status to practice it.

The Wikimedia projects have seen an ongoing decline in active contributors since 2007. The reasons why are complex, and there are no simple solutions to turning that around. At the risk of sounding simplistic, I’m going to offer a solution anyway. Find ways to be more human.

It’s simple, but it’s not easy. There are systemic ways to encourage this, such as making the tool easier to use, revamping the language in the templates, and starting community initiatives like the wonderful Wikipedia Teahouse. All of this stuff is already happening.

Then there are the individual things that everyone can do. Things like reaching out to someone and welcoming them, or expressing gratitude to someone whom you value. Those things matter a lot more than we think, regardless who is doing them, and we don’t do them often enough.

Here’s my advice to everyone who participates in any Wikimedia project in any way — contributor, reader, donor, enthusiast. Make it a point to reach out to one other person. Maybe it’s someone who’s just getting started. Maybe it’s someone whom you’ve appreciated for a long time. Take the time to drop them a note, to welcome them or express your gratitude to them.

If we all did this, I promise you, something magical would start to happen. That’s true of Wikimedia, and it’s true of the world.

Consider this my small little expression of gratitude. Kat, thank you for making me feel welcome!