Call and Response1
A long time ago, back in the last millennium, I remember sending out calls on email lists. And while I waited for responses to come back, I could visualise the calls going out into a vast assembled body of communication networks and peoples, all with their own collectives and networks in turn (offline as well as online). And responses would always come back, as reliable as an echo, but not an echo, as each reply would be unique and distinctive, coming live and afresh from the senders.
I came to inhabit and rely on this vast body, although most parts of the body were so distant that I couldn’t even see or feel them. And I felt simultaneously like part of a limb on the body as well as part of a central nervous system/brain that could send signals out to other limbs and perimeters. Belonging truly is a Superpower.6
Today in the 2020s, these offline-online networks of networks have been through many cycles of call and response, self-reflection, self-making, technology-making and world-making. Each cycle able to build upon, build against, ignore, etc., the work of the last. The feeling of being part of a bigger assembly is still there. But I don’t hear people talking about being part of a collective body, rather it’s collective intelligence ideas like the Hivemind which seem to articulate the spirit of the collective self-recognition. And furthermore, it’s the recursive cycles of the ‘hive’ that feel like the nitty gritty crucial aspect right now.
Recursive in the sense of repeating patterns of action (self-organisation and self-representation, for example), which both characterise and motor successive cycles. Successive in time, scale and dimension. That is, there is traction forward in time and each cycle can build on the work of the past, but additionally there is also a multiple Russian Doll effect connecting across scales and dimensions. Interconnected Russian Dolls. Interconnected by moving interlocking cogs. With different cogs operating in different scales and dimensions (political, epistemological, code, individual participation, collective action, etc.). The recursive linking pattern between the cogs creating traction and creating (hopefully) some movement within the whole.7
In fact, now I’m writing about what the Decidim project and community are helping me perceive and understand (Calleja-López, 2017; Padilla, 2013; La Colmena [The Hive], 2019)4 – which is still a work in progress – and my thinking and articulation will presumably evolve as time goes on. The below four screenshot images gives a sense for the knowledge-sharing that goes on within the Decidim community; and how cyclical, recursive and collective intelligence concepts are consciously mobilised and operational with the Decidim project. The images are screenshots from the recent online festival/conference DecidimFest20 (November 2020). Decidim co-founder, Xabier Barandiaran, is visible in the small inset screen within the larger screen, where the screen within a screen is itself a recursive form. The images show a series of circular, sometimes cyclical, sometimes recursive forms, which he is using to explain Tecnopolitical Autonomy and why Decidim is a good example. So let’s move on to focusing on Decidim, which helps solidify what all these suggestive terms mean, and clarifies a path forward on working it out.
The Decidim project is at the recursive cutting edge of defining what self-making and world-making can look like. Decidim is a prototype for offline-online public-commons participatory democracy, growing out of movement practice and actively in use in the City of Barcelona and around the world. On the surface it looks like a website where you can make proposals, participate in discussions, comment and vote. Under the surface, there is a whole ‘multi-mode, multitudinous, and multi-scale’5 universe, and I will take you there as you read on (Calleja-López, 2017, p. 272).
As Decidim is always in an overt process of self-reflection and self-making, it always remains in a kind of prototype phase – whilst simultaneously being an international standard for public-commons participatory democracy,2 where old school assembly and horizontal practice are just as important as the most high-tech computer mediated and digitised techniques. Decidim also has a social contract, a political-moral compass rooted in social struggle, and some tangible transformation to assess it by, so we can check it out and decide if it’s going somewhere we might want to go.
No place like home
For me, connecting into Decidim can feel like coming home.3 Looking back in time, home in the sense of reconnecting into today’s version of that vast body-habitat I got to know in the last millennium. Looking forward, home in the sense of current and future homes: connecting into what people are doing for this and future cycles of Decidim-making and world-making. When the world out there has some very apocalyptic vibes (Covid, Brexit, alt-right, etc.), it’s reassuring to feel like someplace may be home.
Here in this post and the posts to come, I will tell you about this Decidim ecosystem of interconnected collective intelligences, and the nuts and bolts of how this public-commons participatory democracy works (and sometimes doesn’t work, although they may be working on it). As you can see from this blog, I’ve been posting about this for a while, however, this is where the complete narrative will start, following the argument structure and storytelling devices developed over the past year, and already shared with those people referred to within it.
To ground the story and the analysis, we will closely reference my experience of two live synchronous encounters with Decidim. First, the very hot July 2018, a month when I was embedded in the Decidim office team in Barcelona – a very three dimensional, sensorial and ‘offline’ experience which you can see and hear in a short experimental video The Sound of the Hive and a longer documentary style edit La Colmena (The Hive). Second, the recent DecidimFest20 in November 2020, a conference on ‘Democracy and Technology in times of Emergency’, which was all mediated and accessed online ‘due to Covid’.
Joining DecidimFest 2020 did feel like coming back to the home I’d found in the Decidim Team back in that very hot July 2018. A home that comes to life humming with a certain synchronisation of people, spaces, ideas, conversations, codes, data, technologies, machines and screens. Following that July 2018 embedded with the Decidim Team, where I recorded daily working and community life, I tried to capture that live multi-sensorial hum in a short 50 second experimental video piece The Sound of the Hive (El Sonido de la Colmena) which you can view below, and read more info here.
Although I was watching DecidimFest 2020 sat at my desk in my regular home, the screen of the laptop together with the screen of my phone, worked like a kind of distributed theatrical fourth wall and I was transported into an imaginary space somewhere between all screens, dimensions, people and scales of Decidim. An imaginary space where the volume was UP. Encounters like DecidimFest can be like a plug-in or an immersive-reality glove. Encounters that fit like a glove, where you can merge into that live humming ecosystem, feeling and thinking yourself part of a vast web of interconnected collective intelligences. Collective intelligences that are busy making themselves and, in turn, world-making.
And there were moments when the digital online seams of DecidimFest split and I caught glimpses of the Decidim Team behind the scenes excitedly putting together this very ambitious technical team feat. When the DecidimFest20 livestream started to flow, some happy excited voices spilt over the stop of the livestream asking “Do we know how many people are watching?!” and responding “I don’t know, I don’t know!”. This and other moments reminded me of the scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy’s dog Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal who is really controlling the show, who the Wizard of Oz really is (see image below).
It was clear this was another Decidim experience where encounters would blossom into a myriad of ideas, faces, exchanges, gestures and words. All literally fizzing with collective intelligence(s). Alive collective intelligences that would interconnect in the Decidim space, not just creating networks, but live networks that are more like mini organic ecosystems, each “live network node” in turn giving insights into its own ecosystem back home. Temporarily, for the duration of the encounter, all holding space and energising for what comes next.
A difference being that this DecidimFest was purely online ‘due to Covid’, so these encounters were also a total immersion into the experience of multiple open windows on my computer screen, and also on my phone screen as a secondary device. Listening to DecidimFest discussions on one window, following up discussion ideas on another window, experimenting with Hoaxy Tweet Maps on another, whilst checking the #DecidimFest20 Twitter stream on my phone, and occasionally messaging with people 1-to-1 on Telegram and email (desktop Telegram as well as on phone, email on the phone as well as on the laptop). The faces on the YouTube live stream of DecidimFest, mediated via Jitsi video calls, flipping from single faces filling the whole screen to grids of multiple little faces framed in their own little rectangles, to other configurations of a single small face embedded within the bigger solo shots, and so on. All whilst seated at my desk in my near silent home, sometimes looking out of the window onto the quiet street with trees below, the industrial estate opposite, hearing the low rumble of trains and the sporadic helicopter.
I started to take screenshots and visually sketch what the experience was like. Starting with this:
And ending up with this, emphasising the immersive aspect:
Where the images featured are the following…
(a) Screenshot of DecidimFest20 Youtube Livestream. Specifically the session on Decidim Stories (presumably mediated by the open source video conferencing site Jitsi) (13-14h, 19th November 2020). Image showing session participants: Lars Kaiser & Carlo Beltrame (Urban Equip); Sergi Alonso & Lorena Torró (Coopdevs & CoopCat)(Coopdevs); Marta Anducas & Dante Maschio (Platoniq & Enginyeria Sense Fronteres) (CO)INCIDIM; Francisca Keller, Matias Toledo & Sofía Brito (Coordinadora Social Shishigang) [CAST]; Moderators, Marc Serra, Regidor de Participació de l’Ajuntament de Barcelona.
Surrounding images, going clockwise starting from the middle top image:
(d) Extract from the Decidim White Paper section on Lab.Metadecidim (Barandiaran and Calleja-Lopez, 2019, p. 72).
(e) Stock images of Cloud servers.
(f) Skin of my hand. Me as user, participant, my interface with the outside world, how I interact with the computer.
(g) Screenshot of Decidim code on Github desktop (clicking on “.github / workflo … / ci_conferences.yml”).
(h) View from my work table of the street outside my flat.
(i) Drawing of Decidim ecosystem (people and institutions) by Decidim Team member Gemma Delgado (July 2018).
So, I’ve sown some of the storytelling and content seeds and I hope your imagination is starting to work and open up space for receiving more. Hopefully there aren’t too many seeds so your mental soil isn’t getting overcrowded! I guess with time, the sequencing of seeds can get more selective and precise, and we can cultivate our content garden to be clearer and more potent all the time… let’s see!
To help with the structuring process, I want to leave you with a framework underlined by Haraway (2016), drawing on the work of social anthropologist Marilyn Strathern (1990, 1992). That is, understanding the stories we use to tell the stories:
It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories. Strathern wrote about accepting the risk of relentless contingency; she thinks about anthropology as the knowledge practice that studies relations with relations, that puts relations at risk with other relations, from unexpected other worlds.p. 12
Here in this post, I’ve staked some places in the ground for the stories I’m using to tell the story, as well as the story itself. Acknowledging that due to the recursive character of the story there will be patterns in common between the storytelling devices and the stories, and that is important, as understanding those patterns and how they repeat across different scales and dimensions is at the heart of understanding the thing I want to share.
Finally, I think it’s critical to hold that structure (and distinction) of ‘the stories that tell the stories’, but as a third point on the triangle, also keep asking Who Are The Storytellers? Who has a voice? Who has authorship? I keep asking that by way of operationalising my commitment to an intersectional analysis, making sure I go beyond those intersections I occupy.
- Call and Response. Here we can knit together references from two key authors: Antonio Calleja-López on the significance of the call and Donna Haraway on response-ability. The differences in texture between the writings of Calleja-López (plus other Tecnopolítica works) and Haraway create an interesting dialogue that I am letting unfold. Quoting:
the web homepage says “Let’s decide the Barcelona we want”. The sentence clearly connects with the calls “let’s win” of the citizen candidacies or the “let’s hack” of the technopolitical networks mentioned in Part 2. It is an interpellation to the citizenry to decide how it wants things to work, as Miguel Arana reclaimed five years earlier (see Chapter 1). Furthermore, it is formulated from a citizen viewpoint, as citizenry interpellating citizenry, a “we” that is to answer and constitute itself in the call […] With Decidim this aims to go beyond discourse and semantics, and be translated infrastructurally, into a new technopolitical syntax of participation.Calleja-López, 2017, p. 271
Aka the capacity to respond. From Donna Haraway’s 2016 book Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulecene:
Chthulecene is a simple word. It is a compound of two Greek roots (kthon and kainos) that together name a kind of timeplace for learning to stay with the trouble of living and dying in response-ability on a damaged earth.
Kainos means now, a time of beginnings, a time for ongoing, for freshness. Nothing in kainos must mean conventional pasts, presents or futures. There is nothing in times of beginnings that insists on wiping out what has come before, or indeed, wiping out what comes after. Kainos can be full of inheritances, of remembering, and full of comings, of nurturing what might still be. I hear kainos in the sense of thick, ongoing presence, with hyphae infusing all sorts of temporalities and materialities.
Chthonic ones are being of the earth, both ancient and up-to-the-minute. I imagine chthonic ones as replete with tentacles, feelers, digits, cords, whiptails, spider legs, and very unruly hair. Chthonic ones romp in multicritter humus but have no truck with sky-gazing Homo. Chthonic ones are monsters in the best sense; they demonstrate and perform the material meaningfulness of earth processes and critters. They also demonstrate and perform consequences. Chthonic ones are not safe; they have no truck with ideologues; they belong to no-one; they writhe and luxuriate in manifold forms and manifold names in all the airs, waters and places of earth. […]
Living-with and dying-with each other potently in the Chthulecene can be a fierce reply to the dictates of both Anthropos and Capital.p. 2 (bold added by me)
Hannah Arendt and Virginia Woolf both understood the high stakes of training the mind and imagination to go visiting, to venture off the beaten path to meet unexpected, non-natal kin, and to strike up conversations, to pose and respond to interesting questions, to propose together something unanticipated, to take up the un-asked for obligations of having met. This is what I have called cultivating response-ability. […] The blackbird sings its importance; the babblers dance their shining prestige; the storytellers crack the established disorder. This is what ‘going too far’ means, and this curious practice is not safe. Like Arendt and Woolf, Despret and her collaborators understand that we are dealing with ‘the idea of a world that could be habitable’12 ‘The very strength of women who make a fuss is not to represent the True, rather to be witnesses for the possibility of other ways of doing what would perhaps be ‘better’. The fuss is not the heroic statement of a grand cause … It instead affirms the need to resist the stifling impotence created by the ‘no possibility to do otherwise, whether we want it or not,’ which now reigns everywhere.’13 It is past time to make such a fuss.p. 130-131 (bold added by me)
Footnote 12: Stengers and Despret, Women Who Make a Fuss, p. 159.
Footnote 13: Stengers and Despret, Women Who Make a Fuss, p. 162-163.
2. Source: conversation between CH and X.
3. Inspired by Shoshana Zuboff’s focus on the tension between home and exile in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019). Home is one of the core storytelling devices in my writing on Collective Intelligence and Decidim.
4. In particular: the writing of Calleja-López on the recursive citizen (Calleja-López, 2017) and Marga Padilla on recursivity more generally (Padilla, 2013); La Colmena [The Hive] video (2019) is a documentary style piece I edited from the video material recorded during my period embedded in the Decidim Team (July 2018), showing my experience and perception of Decidim community life in that period.
5. Source: ‘in the Decidim Decalogue, it is stated that “Decidim is a political network for a transparent, multi-mode, multitudinous, and multi-scale participation”. Much of what Decidim.barcelona is expected to do is synthesized in this sentence. Its political function is to serve as a platform for collective intervention into public policies, from legislation to action, from budgets to government agendas. But beyond this, Decidim aims to be a reconfigurable software enabling collective self- organization, decision making and action, as well as empowerment, across the social field. Otherwise, a digital infrastructure for alter-democratic governance within and beyond the municipal government. A technopolitical version of the participatory democracy, and a new version of the autonomist democracy model’ (Calleja-López, 2017, p. 272).
6. “Belonging is a Superpower” is the most brilliant phrase from the most excellent @RichDecibels and @LombardoNati
More info: https://open.coop/2017/09/25/belonging-superpower-patterns-decentralised-organising/
7. While writing this, I started to visualise what these inter-cogged multiple Russian Dolls look like. Here is a first sketch which communicates some basic ideas, although the multiple scales and dimensions are not fully expressed yet:
Barandiaran, Xabier and Calleja-López, Antonio (2019). Decidim White Paper. Authors and Editors: Xabier E. Barandiaran & Antonio Calleja-López. Contributors Eloy Caloca Lafont, Arnau Monterde, Pablo Aragón.
Calleja-López, Antonio (2017). PhD thesis: Since 15M: the technopolitical reassembling of democracy in Spain. (Exeter University, UK).
Marilyn Strathern (1990). The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. University fo California Press, Berkeley.
Marilyn Strathern (1992). Reproducing the Future. Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK.
Padilla, Marga (2013). El kit de la lucha en Internet [The online struggle kit]. Madrid, Spain: Traficantes de Sueños.
Zuboff, Shoshana (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.