kNOw Future Inc.

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Collaborative Futures in NYC and some notes…

Readers in New York may be interested in attending a presentation of “Collaborative Futures”, a text composed over a week in January by six writers, myself included, and published as book for the Transmediale festival in Berlin. Mushon Zer Aviv and Michael Mandiberg will present the book, and Stephen Kovats, who commissioned the work for Transmediale, will also be present. The event is hosted by Upgrade! New York and will take place at Eyebeam (540 W21st Street) this Thursday at 7.30 pm There’s even a live video stream!

Given the result has attracted a bit of attention, I’d like to add a couple of impressions about both the process of working together, and the future (if any) of the resulting book.


Much has been made of the accelerated pace of  the books production. When I arrived on the monday morning, the only participant known to me was the facilitator, Adam Hyde. Thus the first day was spent introducing ourselves and making notes – basically teasing out a shared language and framework within which to work. Although we had assembled a basic outline by late that night, in reality the structure was revised right to the end. The following morning we sat down to write but the patter of the keyboard was constantly punctuated by conversation, negotiation and clarification.

Negotiation in this context requires willingness and good faith, qualities which were happily in plentiful supply. I wondered also if the freshness of our acquaintance may have been a help: sometimes working with people we know well can elicit competitiveness and oversensitivity. Amidst all of this there is a physical aspect: long days spent together nourishes trust, while the shadow of an imminent deadline instills an urgency that encourages compromise for the sake of completing the task.

The irony of being asked to sign the book was not lost on Marta Peirano and I….

This obviously modified what we would have otherwise written individually, but also enabled each person to work on the others’ outputs sensitively. Most sections were initially drafted by one person, others would then edit, add and rephrase where necessary. Being able to discuss and tease points out together provided a means to grasp the acceptable extent to which one could revise other people’s contributions – to refine for clarity, whilst leaving the ‘thrust’ of their sense intact. Here we encounter an issue that arises repeatedly in collaboration: the need for a framework which functions at the level of the collective whilst enabling individual initiative within its own boundaries.

The result entailed an interesting modification to the relationship with the act of writing. The romantic theory of authorship places enormous weight on the concept of expression as inhering to the personality of the writer, insisting that from their inherent subjectivity comes forth a uniqueness which makes it uniquely their property. Whilst I never adhered to this school of thought, it was nonetheless interesting to live its practical contradiction. Writing together in this manner displaces the connection between the individual and the text, as some ‘pure product of the self’, but relocates it to an identification with the subject matter and the methodology employed to elaborate it – peculiarly appropriate for a book about collaboration. On this point it’s safe to say that none of those involved in writing the book would stand 100% behind its contents, whilst nonetheless insisting on the value of the endeavour.

Overall I think what we ended up with is useful overview with some good insights. Those expert in the areas won’t find much that is really fresh, but writing like this leaves no time for original research, but rather leveraging what we already know and trying to fit it into a coherent framework. Regarding its deficiencies: if you care enough to be bothered, please help to remedy them, sign up to and get cracking!

Possible Futures…
Other books written under the auspices of FlossManuals focus on technical subject matter, making the question of their upkeep relatively straightforward: as the field progresses, or new functionalities are added to a software, the book can be updated to reflect that. Given the conceptual nature of our subject, a roadmap for revision and maintenance seems trickier, but the chance to solicit new contributions makes me think it worthwhile.

1. The opening section outlines some assumptions and sets out the limitations of the subject we address. Collaboration is an infinitely extendible concept, and we ended up focussing on mostly large online collaborations. How it pertains to art, political movements and a more traditionally conceived notion of economic activity were put aside. Training the gaze on these areas, examining their specificities and distinguishing them from one another might be one worthwhile approach.

The rest of this section is  dedicated to the motivations of participants and how the decision-making process is structured. Given the wide variety of collaborations out there, this is just a fragment and much could be added and/or qualified. We were not fully satisfied with the placing of process here in terms of the overall structure, but couldn’t come up with a convincing alternative either…

2. Next we attempted to distinguish collaboration from apparently similar phenomena such as sharing or aggregation. We also propose a set of criteria to place interactions on a continuum corresponding to degrees of participation, and offer some examples.

3. Following this, there is a section titled ‘Edge Cases’. For my money, this is the part most amenable to expansion. First of all because it needs it: there are too few case studies! Secondly because anyone interested in this subject has their pet examples, and there isn’t just one way of dealing with knotty topics like ‘ownership’, ‘attribution’ and ‘decision-making’. Additional descriptions of communities together with a problem they faced, or successfully overcome, would fit very neatly here. ultimately I think this section could function as a form of scrapbook, where snapshots of positive and negative experiences can be memorized.

4. We closed with ‘Futures’, where we speculate on how these forms of production may transform realms so far less affected, and on the wider issue of what forms of individual and group identify may be prefigured in what we observe at the moment online. This would be the place to let oneself go with futurology, utopian projects and experimental proposals.

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March 2, 2010 - Posted by | social cooperation, technology


  1. I love that you guys signed the books! I wondered if anyone would ask for that. Thankfully(?) no one did…


    Comment by Michael Mandiberg | March 11, 2010 | Reply

  2. [...] experience with free software or free culture collaborations — Michael Mandiberg, Marta Peirano, Alan Toner, Mushon Zer-Aviv, me, and FLOSS Manuals’ honcho Adam Hyde and programmer Aleksandar [...]

    Pingback by Collaborative Futures | March 26, 2010 | Reply

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