Storytelling Research #1

I’m submerged in the analysis phase of my Collective Intelligence PhD and I’m enjoying the feeling of getting intimate with the concepts, turning them over in my mind’s eye and diving into the thoughts of the people who allowed my research to enter their world: the organising team of Decidim, the offline-online participatory democracy project of the City of Barcelona.

Work will start going public soon and I’m excited to develop storytelling tactics to give the material the best chance of travelling on it’s own two feet.

I’m working on three storytelling devices to carry all the more technical, formal and less accessible detail (outlined below). Meanwhile, I’m also exploring the question of Who are the Storytellers? as a way of addressing intersectionality in an integrated and pro-active way.

Storytelling #1: It’s Alive…!

I feel that I am getting into the inner life of Decidim Barcelona and related tecnopolitical networks, and that this sense of life is fundamental. Not only in terms of what makes the Decidim community tick on a daily basis, but also self-aware organisational approaches that understand groups of people on different scales as living systems (La Colmena de Decidim, 2019; Toret et al, 2013). And that this sense of aliveness is partly why Decidim feel like a live collective intelligence. Whilst the Decidim project and related concepts can be broken down into formally defined characteristics and processes, it feels the heart of the work lies in something alive, and if that aliveness is not recognised, the formal qualities are not enough on their own to explain Decidim or create something similar in another place or time. For example, Decidim Barcelona has values that go beyond formal technical qualities, and responds to moral and political situations through its social contract and live group deliberation. Decidim Barcelona also grows out of a live social history and context, which is touched on below in the third storytelling point.

For a conceptual understanding of aliveness, my reference point is Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen (1995, pp. 170-177). Turkle looks at how people treat machines/objects as if they are alive, and digs into how people understand that experience – as opposed to working out from scratch what being alive should mean. Finding that people cycled through heterogeneous parallel rationales for treating objects as alive, Turkle cited a continuum approach to defining aliveness, where artificial life would be ‘more alive than a car, but less alive than a bacterium’ (p. 173). What continuum of aliveness is appropriate for Decidim is an issue we will gradually feel out.

Storytelling #2: Home

I recently came across an understanding of home that fits with a set of concepts I have been developing around: sovereignty, self-governance, self-determination and populism. I found this idea of home in Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, where she writes about the age old homing instinct and the storytelling trope of the search for home from exile, applying it to the digital age with the question: ‘will this emerging [information] civilisation be a place that we can call home?’

She contrasts the idea of home with the idea of exile, introducing her book with ‘Chapter One: Home or Exile in the Digital Future’, where she links a set of ‘the oldest political questions: Home or exile? Lord or subject? Master or Slave?. By linking home with the struggle to be master of ourselves and our own land, a struggle against subjugation, she articulates the personal and political mix of factors lying within the concepts of: sovereignty, self-governance, self-determination and populism.
Home also clearly resonates with the idea of the hive, which is the title of the first video coming out of fieldwork: La Colmena del Decidim (The Hive of Decidim). With this title, the video suggests the hive as a way of thinking about collective intelligence in the context of Decidim, and home is relevant here as a hive is also the home of the bees that live and work within it. This again echoes with my experience during fieldwork, which was definitely one of feeling at home in the Decidim community – which was why it was possible for me to settle in there and carry out the research in cooperation with the Decidim team. La Colmena video will be made public soon and linked to this post.

Storytelling #3: People changing the world for real

The fieldwork with Decidim gives a rare window into hands-on live processes of social change. Within and behind Decidim are communities and networks of thinkers and doers who helped Spain move from the utter despair of the 2008 financial crisis to a new social moment where we see innovative tecnopolitical projects shaping governmental structures from local city councils to central government in Madrid. All in a way that can credibly claim to be bottom-up.

That story takes us to Tecnopolitica as ‘Decidim Barcelona grew out of Tecnopolitica’s soil, even if some seeds came from the outside’ (Antonio Calleja, 2020).

My drawing made during a conversation with Antonio Calleja about Tecnopolitica, Decidim and how they relate together (July 2018). In my words, I understand it as: Tecnopolitica could be like a root system and/or the fertile soil, and projects like Decidim could be like the trees / things that grow above ground that can be seen. Later, in reference to this discussion and drawing, Antonio made the aforementioned observation that ‘Decidim Barcelona grew out of Tecnopolitica’s soil, even if some seeds came from the outside’ (Antonio Calleja, 2020).

Not only do these people, networks and communities think, act, problem-solve and build society together – which makes the idea of collective intelligence relevant to understanding how they work – but many people within these processes proactively self-identify with the idea of collective intelligence and have worked on developing theories and practices of collective intelligence. As such, I see this as a very special chance to look both at how collective intelligence helps us understand these social ecosystems, and also how these ecosystems help us understand collective intelligence.

:: watch this space ::

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