[Noisebridge-discuss] on consensus

rachel lyra hospodar rachelyra at gmail.com
Tue Mar 25 05:11:11 UTC 2014

I am not an academic, and most of my understanding of things comes from my
own real-world experiences, not having read lots of books.  With that in
mind...some of my thoughts on consensus and decision making esp. as relates
to NB. Read at your own risk. I am open to discussion and disagreement,
on-list.  As always my goal is public discussion not private harassment so
any private messages i don't like will be forwarded to the list.

Consensus is a really interesting decision-making method because it differs
in precise and subtle ways from the methods commonly in use in society at
large.  These differences are easy at times to miss or misunderstand, when
they in fact both reflect and influence the shape of the society that is
based on this decision-making model.  A common misconception is thinking of
it as a kind of voting - it's not! Voting is a majority-rules coercive
system where the minority is overridden because there are more people who
want to do something.  Consensus is a system based, not on coerced
submission (or on enthusiastic agreement), but on consent.  Consenting to
an idea means that you will allow it to happen.  The model is designed to
allow the opinions of the minority to influence the decision itself,
changing the shape of the discussion rather than presenting a binary
in-or-out to a predetermined set of options. This process is confusing and
opaque to people who aren't sure what they are looking at, and is why many
people think of consensus as a time-consuming process with lots of talking.
 it is.  The goal is not to make decisions most efficiently, but in a way
that maximizes input & buy-in by all participants as important values.  The
fact that Noisebridge operates using consensus indicates that this is a
core value. It takes two to make a compromise, though, so in situations
where people are not in consensus about a decision, everyone participating
is obligated to work towards consensus.  Should i say that again? For
consensus to function, everyone participating is obligated to honestly work
towards consensus. Standing aside and blocking are part of that work, if
the individual who is blocking legitimately holds a belief that they cannot
consent to the decision in question.  We who block do then owe our
community the willingness to continue engaging with their concerns, and to
use our differing perspective to help them to seek solutions to their
problems that we believe hew to the values of the group.

Consensus is usually implemented in a very customized flavor depending on
the group in question.  Let's endeavor to talk, rather than about all
consensus, about how Noisebridge consensus works or might work, and perhaps
we can make some progress to a place between 'we have one rule' and 'please
fork our arcana on github'. Both are valid approaches but clearly each
doesn't work for some subset of users and so it is interesting to me to
spend cycles thinking about what functional forward motion, or even
synthesis, could be like.  For me it's crucial to keep in mind the way
Noisebridge has scaled over time, and to consider that this intrinsically
and unavoidably changes the way its decision making process works.

Consensus, as a thing, needn't be 100%.  100% consent is not a precondition
for a consensus-based decision-making model.  Models exist that specify,
for example, n-m consensus, where n is the number of the group and m is
some much smaller number, perhaps even 1 or 2.  Thus, an n-m consensus
would be reached when almost everyone came to an agreement.  Other models
are percentage-based, and the percentage of dissent permitted seems to be
scaled with the size and idealogical diversity of the decision-making
group.  There seem to be some scaling issues with 100% consensus, and I
have seen it used most effectively in groups that are smaller or otherwise
more relatively cohesive.

Group cohesion is an important factor in how consensus gets used.  What is
the group that is deciding? how is it defined? Noisebridge is lucky here in
that we have a way of saying definitively who is to be part of the deciding
body, although there is some confusion about this since we also have a lot
of layers of intentional obfuscation and secrecy. more on that later.  The
last few years have seen some major leaps in the scale of Noisebridge's
user base, and while it is fun to single out groups, such as drug users or
the homeless, as scapegoats for the disintegration of previous cultural
norms, the fact is that cultural norms are always conveyed at least in part
orally, and through lived experiences within the community, rather than
through an operations manual on how humans are supposed to interact.  It is
good to articulate things wholly in clear language, to write the manual,
but in designing a system it is prudent to take into account users who do
not read the manual.  Anyone who has spent some time studying growth curves
can understand the scale relationship between the user bases in 83c days,
in 2009, in 2011, and now.  There is a sense in our lives of wanting to
preserve the things we like in amber, without changing, but the reality is
that new people will change a group, and if the group is healthy and
functioning in a way that will ensure its continued existence, it will also
change the new people.  It is prudent to examine the mechanisms for this.

The idea of a community scaling is also complicated by the fact that people
are not uniform units. The groups of people I encountered in the space in
2009, 2011, and now, vary deeply in demographic, and i think it is worth
spending a little time thinking about how this might affect a group
decision-making process.  If the user base is 85% linux-hacking neckbeards,
there is a great deal of shared culture than can lubricate decision-making.
"But," you say, "at 83c we shouted at each other! we had hate and blocking
and bitter vendetta feuds... and all kinds of weirdoes, even rubin, whose
beard does not in fact extend onto his neck." As diverse as Noisebridge
users' flavors of OS might have been, and the amount of beard actually
being irrelevant, there are lots of assumptions we make unconsciously when
in a smaller and more cohesive group about how people interact, read each
other, and what is appropriate behavior.  This is shared culture.  This is
different than the set of assumptions that we can safely make now, as the
word of this magical hacking nirvana spread beyond more traditional
'hacker' communities, to encompass more of: artists and people who cook
food, n00bs seeking to learn front end dev or hardware hacking,  and lots
of other folks, including a metric assload of app brogrammers.  While I
have always been an avid technology-based thing-making person, i
specifically did not identify as a hacker until i found a community of
hackers that did not share the white male aggro-weirdo culture i found in
so many 'technology' spaces.  The forces that encourage a person to pursue
one of their varied interests are at least in part social, and so by being
a technology space that welcomes non-traditional technology users, we
create more of same. We also extend our community beyond many of the
hacker-based cultural assumptions we are used to making.

<an anecdotal digression...>
When Jesse Z was banned from noise bridge for being a rapist with an
alcohol problem, he admitted that he had been harassing me because he did
not think i was a hacker.  I started coming to Noisebridge to use
specialized production infrastructure and to learn all about soldering,
micro controllers, and to begin building wearable interfaces.  I made open
source interface components from scratch but due to the nature of the work
i was doing in order to accomplish this (sewing) and existing cultural bias
about what types of technology count as technology, an entrenched and
respected member of the 'old-school' community felt like what i was doing
wasn't "techie" enough.  His attitude got transmitted to many new users and
poisoned many wells.  I believe that Jesse's alcoholic and abusive downward
spiral was more toxic to Noisebridge's inclusive growth than any five drug
users or homeless people. Culture is important, and can be influenced by
people much more subtly than through the official consensus process.
Culture and consensus have an inextricable relationship, and reinforcing
what our cultural standards and ideals are is a broader and perhaps more
impactful effort than many decisions that get made at meetings - meetings
play out in a way that echoes that broader culture.

As I understand it, 'council member' has replaced previous designation
'membership' as a decision making body, with all previous members rendered
'council' and new 'member' role something that used to be defined as
'user'.  This is confusing but makes sense in light of scaling issues and
the decisions of people trying to deal with this are valid to me, since i
was on hiatus and wasn't there to help.  While I acknowledge some
limitations in doocracy i fully embrace it as a part of how noise bridge

The 'council member' body, then, could be defined as a group of people who
have all consented to be the decision-making body of Noisebridge, that is,
to be invested in the operations of NB.  Many in this group are
minimalists, as this is the heritage of noisebridge decision-making, and
this is something that continues but given the quantity of brogrammers
(patrick keyes, shawn landden, to name a few) who have been banned from
noise bridge for being stalky creepers, let's admit that the culture has
scaled to a point where we are asking ourselves, is it more important to
preserve our methods in amber, and hang the consequences? or is it
important to evolve our systems with the growth of the organism? This is a
constant question, outside of any specific set of issues in the space.  The
council body is a group of people who have agreed to grapple with this
question while holding true to a vaguely defined set of values. (NB values
might include: anonymity, inclusivity, minimalism, etc... is there a good
list of this kind of thing someplace?)  within that definition, a council
member would be within their role to suggest that The One Rule is
sufficient, but since we have unequivocally banned creepy rapists and
proto-rapists, evidence suggests that The One Rule has already accreted a
great many additional Firmly Held Values.  The current harassment policy is
an attempt to codify this more clearly, i have some issues with it but,
again... doocracy.

It is interesting that the original value of preserving anonymity makes it
difficult to define the council member body. The tuesday meeting is a
clearly established structure for decision making, and there is some
mechanism for how consensus decisions are brought before the group.  (more
on this later) given the ad hoc nature of note taking, it has often been
difficult to keep track of what happens at meetings when one is unable to
attend.  Traditionally proxies are used to bridge the gap, but
realistically council members who are not in town must follow closely to
see what decisions are being considered.

I would argue that council members who wish to weigh in on the continued
functioning of noise bridge are, then, obligated to follow closely, so that
their voiced opinions can be rooted in what is actually happening.  Proxies
can be invoked to block from afar, but it is worth noting that this is a
kind of nuclear option since working together to reach a compromise with
someone who is not present is... difficult.  I think that proxy blocking
should necessarily come with strong good-faith efforts from the absent
party to work with the people who are actually on the ground, and in turn
the people on the ground should make every effort to work with the concerns
of the absent.  The more closely people work together to make the proxy
apparatus clearly understood and usable, the better voice all council
members will have in decision making.  If someone in particular (cough
cough) is unable to ever attend meetings, and yet is concerned about the
evolution of noisebridge, spending some time streamlining and evolving the
proxy mechanism would be a great way to empower themselves.

Given the nature of consensus decision making, there is some necessary
evolution of decisions as they are moved through the process.  Given our
values of at least nominally including absent members in the decision
making process, as well as this fundamental evolutionary aspect of
consensus, some way of striking a balance is needed.  Proposals are
currently made with a delay so that people can get involved in the decision
making process, make plans to attend the meeting in self or proxy, to voice
concerns they have around the decision.  If the consensus process is
working, the proposals will undergo minor changes.  What amount of change
necessitates further delay?  It is an unmeasurable thing, and yet we would
benefit from articulating the line more clearly... but folks in absentia must
also acknowledge that Something Does Happen in the meeting, which
influences the decisions that get made - and their choice of a proxy must
be empowered to take part in this process.

On the permanence of decisions made using consensus.... once a decision is
made, is it 'permanent'? if i withdraw my consent, have we no longer
decided? If i object after the fact because I didn't know, or didn't find a
proxy in time, can i retroactively block a decision? This is a style point
that has been a stumbling block for many a consensus process.  As we have
moved beyond The One Rule (and Approving The Phone Bill) model and onto
Stop Creepy Proto-rapists From Scaring Off Half Our Users, we would benefit
from establishing some clearly held community understanding around this.

For our decision making process to function, we must all be seeking to work
together, and seeking to understand the needs driving proposals we don't
like.  Without this investment of giving-a-shit to allow growth, we
encourage a broken culture that will eventually stagnate and die.

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