Scaling up communities – Part 1

In the earliest dawns of civilization, humans lived in what we would consider extended families.  These formed the small communities the members of which relied upon each other for survival.

Anthropologists tell us these groups could range from as few as 20-30 people up to about 100-150, depending on the circumstances of that group.  If the group grew larger, it would split into two related groups.  The reasons for this were simple:  in the dawns of our civilization, a specific area could only support a group of a certain size.  This size varied, based on climate, fertility of the land, argriculture and/or hunting opportunities and techniques, and so on.

According to the latest theories, it was under conditions like these that our brains came to be ‘set’ in their current state – and that is why we can feel individually connected to only so many people before they become just ‘statistics’.  This number is called the Dunbar’s number, but the whole concept is really well explained in an article by David Wong called ‘What is the monkeysphere?’.

In a nutshell, the ‘Monkeysphere’ is the collective name of the people we think of as ‘individuals’ – these are the people we are able to ‘care about’ as ‘themselves’, not as just ‘some people out there’.  The more we know about a person, the ‘deeper’ into our ‘Monkeysphere’ they burrow.  It is exactly the same phenomenon which allows us to know that there are hungry people in the world, even kids, and still be able to sleep at night – but show us a picture of one child and tell us its story, and we’ll line up to adopt it and send money to support it.

The reason why this is so interesting to me right now is because I am looking at how we, humans, organize the communities we build. 

While we live in small groups, we can rely on customs and conventions to set our ‘rules’ of behaviour.  We know each other, our idiosynchrocies and can deal with each other by resolving conflicts one on one, with the group being the refs.

Once we live in a community larger than Dunbar’s Number, not all our neighbours can fit into our Monkeysphere… so, we resort to making rules and laws and appointing judges in order to get along.  This is all fine – except that we loose some of the caring which bound the community together while all of it was within our Monkeysphere.

And that is the key in understanding so much of our human interactions…

An employer who does not deal with individual employees who sneak into his Monkeysphere, but with a ‘faceless union’ – well, such an employer will see negotiations as a business transaction, nothing else.  And employess who do not work daily with their employer, but are isolated from the employer by a dam of ‘human resources’ officers – well, they will not perceive a person:  there is no way for that employer to get into their Monkeysphere!  (Yes, there are layers of complexities, but this is a useful reduction tool.)

This works with governments:  small governments interact with their citizens directly – they are inside their Monkeyspheres (that WAS the goal of ‘representative government’).  As the government is scaled up, the Monkeysphere cannot stretch so much – so the citizens become a statistical collection, not inidividuals to care about as individuals. 

In other words, as we become more successful and form larger and larger social groups, we loose the ability to treat each member of the group with as much caring as we would treat an extended family member.  This can leave us all feeling a little ‘disconnected’, at least, at times.

Who holds the power – Part 1

As the MSM bring heart-wrenching newsfrom Mumbai, I cannot but look back to the earliest history of humanity…  Acts like these are despicable and horrible and unequivocally condemnable!!!

Yet, it leads me to ask, within our human social groups, how do we decide who holds the power?

We, humans, build communities.  It is one of the secrets of our success.

Yet, this sets up natural competition on two different levels:  within each community and between various communities.  Unless we understand the ‘simple’ dynamics of these basic competitions – and the psychology underlying them – we cannot hope to understand the complex dynamics of what is going on globally.

Competition within a community

Perhaps it is fitting that I raise this today, when many in the US are celebrating Thanksgiving…  Like most holidays – secular or religious – families, extended families or ‘social families’ (you know, including neighbours and friends…) get together.  And, many mental health professionals tell us that it is precisely these social get-togetherness which can cause some serious ‘stressors’ in people….

Why?

Because we are forced into ‘togetherness’ with people we both love, like, dislike and cannot stand – and we must smile and be ‘civil’ throughout the duration of the festivities.  Sometimes it is easy – and truly enjoyable.  At other times – it can be pure torture!

In order for us to get along, we must know our ‘pecking order’ within the social community in question.  Most of the time, this is just fine.  But it depends a lot on the other people within the group…

We have all met people who are so inadequate, they cannot feel good about themselves without putting down others – right?  They come in all ages, both sexes…  And they can poison the atmosphere of any festivity – especially if they are in a position where we owe them respect due to their role in the social group, or if the ‘senior’ members of the group do not set out clear expectations of behaviour. 

(You don’t need to be an Aspie, like I am, to feel the stress of these situations!)

I am not an expert on psychology (sic), so I will not try to offer some deep insights here.  All I am hoping to do is to call attention to this dynamic – present in our social groups today – and ask you all to imagine how these relationships must have resolved themselves when we, humans, lived in social groups (tribes) of about 30-150 members…. and when every day of our lives, our very hope of survival, was very much like the careful social balancing act we need to perform during holidays and their related social get-togethers.

So, who holds the power within a community?

While we usually set up a lot of social rules about who holds the power within a community (and, here, now, I am discussing a small, autonomous community of under 150 people), the truth of the matter is that the person who controls others holds the power. 

The ‘why’ can be variable – customs, religion, consensus…  It is interesting as a question on its own, but it is never nearly as clear as the ‘how’ that person controls the rest of the community: this is usually very constant (especially when we look at the history of the dawn of our human communities).

The means of controlling a community always involves access to food and protection of lives.

The shaman may successfully intercede with ancestors to send plentiful game for a hunt – or to send rain for a good harvest.

The successful chieftain will negotiate with neighbouring tribes both the boundaries to be respected, and the marriages and trade to take place.

OK, so I am not a historian or an anthropologist, either, but I have asked several historians and several anthropologists a lot of questions about this…  and, greatly simplified, in my never-humble-opinion, it appears that we have always allowed individuals whom we trust to protect our lives and ensure our food supply to control our little social groups.

Perhaps it is less obvious in today’s world – but there are still signs of it in our social customs.  Consider the honour of ‘head of the family’ being the one to carve the turkey:  this is a symbolic ‘control of the food supply’, whether we know it or not.  Or what ‘social prominence’ is given to what female, along with the ‘honour’ to provide what dish…  I know in my own extended family, the woman who gets to make the apple pie is the ‘top dog’ of the day….

Of course, ‘Black Friday’ is a study in chaos theory – or, perhaps, in ‘group competition’ dynamics….  Yet, if you are enjoying some major social interactions over this US Thanksgiving (or during the many upcoming Christmas parties), look around and think about our customs and how they relate to our group dynamics…. and how we know who is in charge when.

Carleton University students redeem themselves

This is an update to yesteday’s post, which – among other things – linked to a story about how Carleton University Student Association (CUSA) had passed a resolution which warrants being quoted here in full:

Motion to Drop Shinerama Fundraising Campaign from Orientation Week
Whereas Orientation week strives to be [as] inclusive as possible;
Whereas all orientees and volunteers should feel like their fundraising efforts will serve the their diverse communities;
And Whereas Cystic fibrosis has been recently revealed to only affect white people, and primarily men
Be it resolved that: CUSA discontinue its support of this campaign
Be it Further Resolved that the CUSA representatives on the incoming Orientation Supervisory Board work to select a new broad reaching charity for orientation week.
Moved: Donnie Northrup           
Seconded: Meera Chander

‘Shinerama’ is part of ‘frosh week’:  students offer to shine people’s shoes in exchange for donations to charity – the Cystic Fibrosis Association….

Before we go further, it should be noted that this ‘motion’ was kept tightly under wraps until the meeting itself – the ‘agenda’ for the meeting was not made available even to those attending, etc.  In other words, it stunk a lot…  And, one of the two reps to vote against it (and who brought it to public attention) got TONS of emails from the ‘approving’ members criticizing him for his move and – yes, calling him ‘a racist’!!!

Well, here is a reaction from Carleton University’s own student newspaper, the Charlatan:

The unprecedented negative reaction that Shinerama-gate has brought to Carleton should show CUSA that it needs to take council operations more seriously.

In the future, CUSA needs to think before it acts.

But that is not all!!!

The Carleton University students have been very vocal in their criticism of CUSA – and demands that ALL the members of the Association who voted FOR this ‘proposition’ resign immediatelly!!!  (At least, that is the gist of the polite ones…)

In other words, Carleton University is kind of like our society at large:  most of us are actually quite decent folk who DO know right from wrong….but because we don’t have a strong desire to boss other people around, we don’t go ‘into government’.  The ones who have this strong desire to engineer the behaviour of others are not usually representative of the rest of us…but, as Douglas Adams said, we vote for them anyway because otherwise, the ‘wrong lizzard might get in’…

And, just like when most Canadians learned about the racist excesses Section 13(1) has been subverted to the service of, when most of the students at Carleton discovered the insanity of their leaders, they are very unanimous in demanding their heads (in the sense of ‘resignation’ – nothing more…..this IS Canada, after all!!!). 

To quote a great thinker, Carleton Students are saying:  Fire. Them. All.

This actually gives me hope!

 

UPDATE:  CUSA has reinstated Shinerama, with CF as the supported charity.  What is more, Donnie Northrup, the author of the motion, has resigned.  As for the rest of CUSA – they may still be impeached by the student body!

Food for thought

Today, I would like to offer a few other posts which bring some food for thought:

George Jonas:  Dalton McGuinty’s Singapore of the North

National Post editorial board: Thought police are thought police, not ‘facilitators’

Jonathan Kay on cystic fibrosis, and the disgrace of Carleton University’s Students’ Association

Damaging Israeli Flag Creates Unease at Bell High School (that should have been defacing, not ‘damaging’!).

It just makes my head spin…

 

Update:  It has been determined that the Israeli flag (part of a multi-national flag exhibit) at Bell (the high school of both John Manley and John Baird) had been damaged by a student of Palestinian heritage.  No informaition is available on what, if any, disciplinary action the student will face for her actions.

UPDATE:  Carleton University students redeem themselves

Government ‘standardization’ and ‘big business’

Perhaps it is no surprise that most ‘big businesses’ could not exist (or become so ‘entrenched’) without the willing or unwitting support from governments.

I am not talking about the big bailouts of banks or car manufacturers during times of financial uncertainty.  While I think these are very ill advised (certainly in the current form), they are not the subject of this post.  To get there, we need to go quite a bit back in time, to when the Western world was enjoying quite stable economy.

Since my background is in technology, I will concentrate on this aspect – though my sources are pretty convincing that this is indicative of an overall trend within both the US and Canadian governments, in multiple fields.  And, to be honest, the ideals are very good!  So, let me get to the meat of the story…

Long time ago, when computers were just becoming the thing in innovation (yes, the buzzwords of the day were ‘automation’ and ‘co-operative’, then ‘innovation’; later along came ‘synergy’…. if you have had any contact with the language of ‘bureaucrateese’ (and much of it has been aped by the mainstream media (MSM) – albeit, with a 6-12 month delay), you know exactly what I mean.  We’ve worked our way through ‘centers of excellence’ to ‘best practices’; from ‘co-operation’ to ‘collaborative efforts’; from ‘synergy’ and ‘quality initiatives’ to ‘governance structures’ and ‘connectivity’. 

I hate buzzwords!!!   But that is besides the point.

When ‘office automation’ first became possible with the use of desktop computers and intranets, we saw an incredible spark of creativity.  People came up with creative ideas, started small companies and developed solutions to specific problems – and governments bought the solutions.  It made life better for everyone!

But, as time marched on, it became apparent that different government departments actually had to interface with each other.  Now, all these original solutions presented a bit of a problem – they were not really set up to interface with each other.

It was a natural maturation of the system that governments started to standardize their equipment across all the departments.  One central decision was made as to the system to be used, then all the departments had to do their best to try to fit their applications into it and migrate their operations onto this centrally approved platform.  It is not a perfect system, but at least the right hand knows what the left is doing, so to speak.  And, since this central solution was so big and important, it was natural that the bureaucrats making the purchasing decisions understood that only the biggest and most important players in the marketplace would be sufficiently large to provide the solution.  Obviously!

The effect of this centralization process on all the small hi-tech companies which had sprung up to develop the specialized applications for the various departments was predictable:  it dried up their marketplace completely. 

The result? 

Those ‘little guys’ who became ‘authorized re-sellers’ of the ‘big guys’ products survived – by turning into remoras… with limited horizons.

Other ‘little guys’ who managed to diversify to applications for the private sector suffered a lot of growing pains, but some of them made it.  Not enough of them survived – and their growth was much slowed down, as they did not have the steady support of the government contracts which allows some risktaking in developing new niches.

I quite understand the requirement for standardization of the government systems.  I have no complaints with this!  HOW it was achieved – that is another story! 

Not only did the government (my knowledge of the  Canadian government practices in this area is quite extensive) failed to support the development of emerging small to medium sized companies (these companies are necessary to keep the industry evolving and healthy), they actively undermined them. 

I have seen cases where the small/medium sized Canadian company bid on a government contract – and satisfied all the requirements in the RFP (request for proposal).  Now, for a large project, a company like this may invest several thousand dollars (depending on the contract, it could run high into 4 digits) in preparing the proposal with which to bid for the contract.  The costs are both in development of the solution (after all, you need to propose a solution!) and in the manpower to prepare the document itself.

And, I have also seen technically superior, more cost effective bids from small/medium sized Canadian companies rejected, on the grounds that on page 53 of the proposal, there was a misplaced comma – or the French translation was not gramatically correct.  A large multinational corporation would win the contract…

It pains me to even write about it – but I have seen this happen over and over and over.  Governments prefer working with one large company rather than supporting the growth of a healthy domestic industry in that field.  This is not a healthy attitude – for the government, for the emerging companies and the industry, but most importantly, this attitude has incredibly detrimental impact on the citizens.

Why?

By granting a ‘preferred vendor’ or ‘pre-approved vendor’ status on one or two large companies, the government can exercise incredible control over them.  Worried about loosing their profitable monopoly (or near-monopoly) status, these companies become willing to do just about anything to keep their biggest customer, the government, happy!

Let’s consider the scenario I described in this post, where the City of Ottawa government granted one large multinational company a monopoly to provide internet service to all the ‘rural Ottawa’ residents.  They kicked a number of smaller ISPs already present in parts of this marketplace out – legislating them out of business.  Really.  And the folks running the city thought this was a thing to be proud of!

Now imagine that someone ‘at the City’ lets it be known to the monopoly holder that all internet traffic must be monitored ‘to prevent hate speech’….  Do you think the ISP will put his monopoly at risk, or set up filters on the network that would ‘monitor and report’??? 

Big business enables ‘big brother’ to have eyes….

Controlling who provides our internet access

Several weeks ago, a popular Ottawa openline radio talks show host was going ballistic over what had happened to his internet access.  He lives in the rural part of the city (the City of Ottawa contains both the urban and much of the surrounding rural area).  And while people in many parts of the rural region could not easily get high-speed internet connections, he happened to live in a largish village that had that service.  For years, he was very happy with his internet provider.

This changed.

One day, his ‘regular’ provider – a small, local company – simply went away and was replaced by a big company.  And his internet stopped working ‘right’.  No problem – when there is a change, things are bound to happen… he had no problem with that, as long as things got fixed.  The new provider had a 24-hour support number (so far so good) where customers could report problems and have them dealt with right away.

So, he called the number.  Automated answering system – understandable, so our host goes through the menues.  And more menus.  And more menus.  After over an hour of this, he gave up…

I cannot recall the exact details of this – but I do recall the basics.  And his lines lit up with callers eager to add their own horror-story about the terrible service they had received from this particular provider.  Many were upset that they had no choice to remain with their other providers – there were several, if I am not mistaken.  Yet, all had, simultaneously, dissappeared and were replaced by this one large company whose service was at best poor and customer support mostly non-existant.

What happened?  This is the background to the story:

The City of Ottawa had received complaints from rural residents about the fact that they could not get high-speed internet access.  (This would be referred to as ‘pressure from below’.)  Being a very responsive government (when they want to be), the city councillors decided to solve this problem.  Since the council is made up of people many of who had never held a non-political/public service job in their life – they came up with a somewhat predictable solution:  give one internet provider a monopoly right over all the rural region of the city in exchange for ‘hooking everyone up’!

They put it out to tender, then selected a large international heavyweight with a prestigious name to provide the service.  Very proudly, they announced this success in a press release!  Now, everyone is equal! 

Did you follow what just happened?

Yes, getting a high-speed internet service is a good thing – even for people who choose to live out in the countryside.  I have no problem with that.

What I have a problem with is that the way the City of Ottawa government chose to solve this robbed the rural Ottawans of their rights!

THEY GRANTED SOMEONE A MONOPOLY!!!  And what is more – they effectively forbade companies already providing a commercial service to their customers from continuing to provide this service!

And they are proud of the evil they had committed!

In my never-humble-opinion, it is exactly governments like these that were the reason that beautiful-sounding word, ‘defenestration’, was added to our language!

But consider the mindset at work here:  ‘the government’ is, by definition, a monopoly.  People running this particular government (the majority, anyway – enough of them to outvote the ‘rest’) have no experience outside of the ‘government monopoly’.  They truly and honestly think that monopolies are the best solution to just about every problem.  And then they implement ‘solutions’ such as these…

But this goes beyond just meddling by an incompetent government.  It is a real-life, managable-scale example of how governments and monopolies (or their variations) support each other.  The bigger the government, the bigger the companies – the more tangled the strings get.  But they are there!

CRTC ruling: it’s OK to throttle your customers!

Even though this is not where I was planning to go next in my ‘Big Picture’ look at what is happening around us, the timing of the CRTC’s ruling makes it convenient to call attention to what is happening with the internet.

Today’s article in the Financial Post, titled ‘CRTC denies request to ban Internet ‘Throttling”, we learned that Canada’s top censors communications regulating body, the CRTC, have ruled it’s OK bor Bell Canada to throttle internet trafic as they please – as long as they throttle everybody’s traffic equally….  Yeah, pull the other one!

“”Based on the evidence before us, we found that the measures employed by Bell Canada to manage its network were not discriminatory. Bell Canada applied the same traffic-shaping practices to wholesale customers as it did to its own retail customers,” said CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein.”

CAIP outlined how Bell Canada’s throttling has slowed down usage of Voice-over-Internet-Protocol calls, encrypted traffic, peer-to-peer file sharing and virtual-private networks to 30 kilobytes per second (roughly half the speed of a dial-up modem) from 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Normal speeds are about five megabytes per second, about 166 times faster.”

Uncle Stalin always used to say that controlling the means of communication is the best way to gain power.  It is ‘good’ to see that his message has hopped class barriers and that the mandarins at the CRTC have taken his lesson to heart.  Or something like that…

Whatever the reason, it is a message we must not ignore – especially when the CRTC is – reportedly – also considering serously altering the way internet is accessed in Canada.  I addressed this in an earlier post, but the upshot was that instead of just ‘surfing’ the net as a user would like, the ‘sites’ would be ‘bundled’ just like channels are bundled from a cable provider.  Then, the user could buy a ‘package’ that would include access to some 100 pre-approved ‘bundled’ sites.  Any website (or blog) outside of these ‘big ones’ would cost a buck or two (to be set) per click…IF they would be available at all… 

Yeah, a slow death of ‘throttling’ to anyone not in the ‘bundle’….  So, perhaps we ought not be surprised that this same set of people thinks it OK for Bell to slow internet trafic to the internet providers themselves to half the dial-up speed…during the hours that people are home and ‘surfing’. 

I guess the only question remaining here is:  what is their motivation in maintaining this consistent stand?

Perhaps the answer is simpler and more crass than most of us would imagine…