Building Consensus

Shadows on snow

Cold and Long Dark

Consensus as the form of government in my fiction came about from a combination of personal experience with consensus used in a collaborative project (in this case, Wikipedia) & the influence of another science fiction story, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars).  I’m doing a lot of reading nowadays about consensus, collaborative decisionmaking, sociocracy, etc. as background research for my writing.  I’m also becoming convinced that those forms of decisionmaking are our best means of recreating our own society & government into one that really is of, by, & for the people.

But for now: just the story of how I decided on Consensus to begin with.


When I first decided to write Cold for NaNoWriMo 2007, I didn’t know much at all about the government or society in which my characters lived.  I only knew that the story began with a question — What does cold feel like? — out of which emerged the story’s setting & first characters: a planet in the late stages of terraformation, and two young women, one who had never lived outside the enclosed habitats of her space-born society, & one who had.  These two characters, Bai & Boleyn, are the center of the story of Cold; but of course there is a world in which they live, a society in which they live, more questions to be answered.  For instance, how did Boleyn come to have experience outside the closed biosphere?  Okay, her family was exiled for a time to a remote facility.  But why?  How?  Where?  And so on.  Well, that’s storymaking, to me: it’s about asking a question, & trying out answers until you come up with one that you like, which will generate more questions, more what ifs.

I made the decision to do NaNoWriMo 2007 in about February of that year.  But I had to constrain myself from actually writing it until November, when NaNo actually began.  Didn’t stop me from thinking about it, though; & so what I call storymind became engaged pretty continually.  For instance, I remember walking across the UAA campus one day on a work-related errand. It must’ve been February or March, still winter, so I stuck that day to what we at UAA informally call the “spine” — the enclosed walkways that make it possible to walk most of the way across campus without going outside.  And I thought, hmm, wouldn’t the closed habitats on my story’s planet be build in a modular style, with closed in walkways like the ones I’m walking in now to connect them?  Why, of course they would. Thus in my storymind I began to design the structure of the enclosed community that I later named Turnbull, which is essentially a collection of several enclosed habitats called Commons that are connected together with “tubes” aboveground & tunnels belowground.

(Turnbull itself is named after Margaret Turnbull, one of the two astronomers who compiled the Catalog of Nearby Habitable Systems (HabCat) to narrow down the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), obviously useful in the search for systems with potentially habitable extrasolar planets like the one my characters were terraforming. The other HabCat compiler was Jill Tarter, who was the inspiration for the main character in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, played in the movie by Jodie Foster.)

The battle of the Battle of Washita River

Cold wasn’t all I was thinking about over the course of 2007.  Life stuff, of course, including a trip to Seattle & Spokane to visit family.  Also, I got heavily involved in active editing of Wikipedia.  This began more-or-less by accident when I discovered that the Wikipedia article about the Dena’ina elder & writer Peter Kalifornsky indicated he was alive.  Hold on, I thought, didn’t I recall him having died sometime within the past few years?  Yep, about four years previously — so next thing I knew I was researching him, correcting the article, & doing even more research… on an article which even now I haven’t completed (!!!).  But I sure learned a lot along the way about Dena’ina language, culture, & history (Anchorage is situated in Dena’ina country) — some of which entered storymind to influence some aspects of Cold.  But of course I also got pulled to other Wikipedia articles, & pretty soon Wikipedia editing became a major focus that largely drew me away from my writing life (at least in terms of writing my stuff) until November, when NaNoWriMo helped me to break that fixation.  Nowadays, I do Wikipedia editing only here & there.  (Though it would really be nice if I finished that Peter Kalifornsky article!)

But my Wikipedia experience went into storymind too.  Of particular relevance: I got caught up in huge dispute on a particular article (the Battle of Washita River, if you want to know) with a certain editor with strong anti-Indian bigotry who wanted to paint the Cheyenne people in general & the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle in particular as unqualifiedly evil, & George Armstrong Custer (this editor’s personal hero) as unqualifiedly good & wonderful & perfect.  Never mind historical facts; & never mind Wikipedia policies of neutral point of view (commonly abbreviated in Wikipedia background discussions as NPOV), “no original research” (NOR), & verifiability — policies that are intended to protect Wikipedia’s integrity as an encyclopedia by founding its articles on reliable sources, verifiable facts, & neutral presentation of all sides of contentious issues instead of presenting only “one side of the story.”

Battle of Washita River

Battle of Washita River as depicted in Harper's Weekly for December 19, 1868, three weeks after the event on November 27. Through Wikimedia Commons.

Dealing with this dispute was a big learning experience.  Given my lifetime of socialization in 20th & 21st century U.S.A., my first reaction in dealing with a clearly biased “one side of the story” breaker of rules was to look for an authority figure to whom I could appeal to bring this editor into line: Someone is breaking the law: where are the cops, the judges, can’t we ban this guy?

The closest thing you have to “authority figures” on Wikipedia are admins… but it doesn’t take long on Wikipedia to discover that an admin is not, in fact, a cop.  Wikipedia governs itself by processes of consensus: if you appeal to an admin about a dispute on an article, the admin isn’t going to automatically kick someone’s butt unless there are clearcut problems like edit-warring or personal attacks.  But if the disputes are over content & bias, the admin is going to advise you to discuss the problem on the article’s discussion page, & try to come to a consensus.  Yes, there we go: consensus, one of Wikipedia’s six core policies regarding personal conduct, which also include a demand for civility and no personal attacks, refraining from edit warring, welcoming everyone to edit (assuming they abide by Wikipedia’s core policies, including the conduct policies), & collaboration on, rather than individual “ownership” of, articles.

Okay, but we’ve got a content dispute with a biased editor here, & we’ve been told to take our dispute to the article’s talk page & come to consensus.  But what if agreement can’t be reached there?  Then there are additional processes used in Wikipedia through which disputes can be worked through, some of which might result in sanctions against problematic “I refuse to abide by Wikipedia’s policies” type editors (like the guy we were dealing with).  Our problem guy did get the occasional sanction for edit warring & personal attacks (as did one of the folks supposedly on the “right side” of the content dispute, who has since gone on to a long career in getting banned for incivility & edit warring under a variety of different sockpuppet usernames), but it took us a long time to bring the content dispute into some kind of control, just a couple of months before NaNoWriMo 2007 took me out of the Wikipedia biz.

If you’re curious, check out the Talk page & its archives for Battle of Washita River to see all the crap I & my fellow editors had to go through.  Especially see the RfC (Request for Coments) on the article itself & the related RfCs on our two problem editors.  (I’m the user Yksin.)  It took us two months to move from the article being locked down in a biased & inaccurate form to be able to edit it again after the disputes had been more-or-less settled.  It took a long time, but we did it right.  If you think I’m being a naive idealist when I talk about the need to be civil in discussing Sarah Palin, then read through this stuff, & try to convince me that civil, factual discussion doesn’t, in the end, win out over the kind of offal that our problem editors were continually unloading on us.  Patience helps.  I’m proud of the way I handled myself throughout.

Wikipedia was a great experiential education for me in at least some of the possibilities of consensus.  It was also instructive about how “knowledge” is constructed.  I grew to have a great deal of respect for Wikipedia as a source of information — as long as you know how it works & how to evaluate the information there.  (I typically look not only at the articles themselves, but also their edit histories & talk pages.  But I also never consider a Wikipedia page the last word on a topic.  I still sometimes log in & correct typos or misstatements of fact, or to revert vandalism.)

If you’re interested in seeing how consensus operates in a huge collaborative project like this, you can do like I had to do: go into the behind-the-scenes of Wikipedia. See how editors & admins & bureaucrats (another level of Wikipedia adminship) talk with each other about articles & the processes by which articles are written.  Look at article talk pages & see how disputes over content are resolves.  Check out the process called Request for Adminship, or RfA by which admins become admins & bureaucrats become bureaucrats — which is partially what Cold‘s process of Examination is based upon.  There’s a lot there.   And it’s very geeky but also very cool.  I still think very highly of the numerous people who work really hard to make Wikipedia a good encyclopedia.

A constitution on Mars

Pavonis Mons

Mars Global Surveyor image of Pavonis Mons, a broad shield volcano (similar to the volcanoes of Hawaii) located on the martian equator at 113°W. The volcano summit is near 14 km (~8.7 mi) above the martian datum (0 elevation); the central caldera (crater near center of image) is about 45 km (~28 mi.) across and about 4.5 km (~2.8 mi.) deep. Pavonis Mons is the site of a settlement in Kim Stanley Robinson's novel Blue Mars where the Martian Constitution was written. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems via JPL Photojournal.

At the same time in 2007 that I got caught up in Wikipedia editing, I was following my friend Chris’ advice to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Hugo & Nebula-award winning Mars trilogy — Red Mars, Green Mars, & Blue Mars — because of one of its overall themes, the terraformation of Mars.  But, as I wrote the other day, I also discovered another them theme —

the long & arduous struggle of Robinson’s Martian colonists for freedom from the political & economic domination of Earth. Freedom not only from Earth’s numerous governments — but especially from Earth’s corporations, which have become so powerful that they are in many ways more powerful than governments themselves, both on Earth & on Mars.

The Wikipedia article about Kim Stanley Robinson observes,

Robinson’s work often explores alternatives to modern capitalism. In the Mars trilogy, it is argued that capitalism is an outgrowth of feudalism, which could be replaced in the future by a more democratic economic system. Worker ownership and cooperatives Green Mars and Blue Mars as a replacement for traditional corporations….

Robinson’s work often portrays characters struggling to preserve and enhance the world around them in an environment characterized by individualism and entrepreneurialism, often facing the political and economic authoritarianism of corporate power acting within this environment. Robinson has been described as anti-capitalist, and his work often portrays a form of frontier capitalism that promotes ideals that closely resemble anarcho-syndicalist and socialist systems, and faced with a capitalism that is staunched by entrenched hegemonic corporations. In particular, his Martian Constitution draws upon social democratic ideals explicitly emphasizing a community-participation element in political and economic life, while a persistent threat to social democracy is embodied by transnational corporations, the characteristics of which resemble those predicted by institutionalist and socialist economists such as Ted Wheelwright and Karl Marx.

It should be no surprise to anyone, given my already vociferous criticism of contemporary corporatism (not to mention the foolishness of granting corporations the legal fiction of “personhood”)  that I like this about Kim Stanley Robinson.  A lot.

Wikipedia goes on to say,

The environmental, economic, and social themes in Robinson’s oeuvre stand in marked contrast to the right-wing Libertarian streak prevalent in much of science fiction…  and his work has been called the most successful attempt to reach a mass audience with a left-wing libertarian and anti-capitalist utopian vision since Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel, The Dispossessed.

Ursula K!!!  What greater recommend could there be for Kim Stanley Robinson than that?  And The Disposessed is a great novel — thanks, Wiki editors, for the reminder to read it again. If all I am at the moment is a barely-published writer of only a couple of things here & there, still, let it be known — I aspire to stand in their tradition.

(Though I hesitate to call either of their visions as utopian.  I think societies such as they’ve invented are possible & desirable.  But it’ll take us to make them.)

By the beginning of the last book of Robinson’s trilogy, Blue Mars, the Martian colonists have finally succeeded in kicking the corporations off-planet (by means of the trilogy’s Second Martian Revolution in the year 2127); but in order to maintain their independence from Earth governments & Earth-based corporations, they decide they need to adopt their own constitution & government.  Thus, a congress is convened in a settlement at Pavonis Mons — one of Mars’ great volcanoes — where the new Martian Constitution is drafted, later to be ratifiied by 78% of Martians who voted (the novel says that 95% of eligible voters voted).  (Tip o’ the nib to MangalaWiki, a wiki-based encyclopedia on the Robinson’s works, which helped me keep my facts on track.)

Here’s where Robinson & Wikipedia collided in my storymind: the people who did the actual drafting of the constitution at Pavonis Mons worked collaboratively — &, of course, using computers. —

“At least the points are there to discuss,” Nadia said.  And along with them, on everyone’s screen, were the blank constitutions with their sections headings, suggesting all by themselves the many problems they were going to have to come to grips with: “Structure of Government, Executive; Structure of Government, Legislative; Structure of Government, Judicial; Rights of Citizens; Military and Police… [and so on]. (my paperback copy of Blue Mars, p. 125)

Later, after they complete their work, they attach all the numerous written documents & discussions that had been generated during the process for reference by courts, historians, & other interpreters who wanted a better understanding of the framers’ intent.  (Much as Alaskans can refer to the minutes of the Alaska Constitutional Convention in order to better understand the Alaska Constitution & its framers’ intent.)

And I thought, what if they actually used wiki-type software, similar to what Wikipedia itself uses,  to draft their constitution?  That way, there would always be a running record of the proceedings (at least, any that were in written form) — edit histories, talk pages to discuss differences & disagreements about difference, & to develop agreement & consensus — the full gamut.

I’m not sure exactly the moment this stuff germinated to such an extent that it fledged itself fully into my story’s Consensus government — but I had it by November 1, 2007, when I did my first day’s writing on Cold — the same writing that became, with not as many revisions as you’d think, the short story “Cold” published in Crossed Genres Issue #12 exactly two years later.

But come to think of it — there was also a third influence in the mix, which I’ll call —

Influence of the Self

— the Self in this case being myself & my beliefs, especially the content of my beliefs with regard to selfhood.

Best expressed by some of my writing about halfway into NaNoWriMo 2007, when I was reading Robinson’s The Martians, which collects a lot of stories & sketches related to his trilogy & its characters.  Among them were some pieces about the Constitution of Mars, with commentary from one of Robinson’s fictional constitutional framers. These pieces led me to additional thinking about Consensus in my story.  On November 19, 2007, I wrote in part,

Two chief principles exist in dialectic, as can be encapsulated in the statement held to by one of the spiritual movements within Consensus: Harming none, do as you will.  I think what I’m getting to is some of my own deepseated beliefs, which that statement plays a large part in.  Basically, whether at the individual level or the community and government level, the  principle of sovereignty over one’s own actions (“do as you will”, self-government) is always balanced against the the principle of nonharm: the recognition and respecting of the rights and autonomy of others.   Consensus has as one of its fundamental principles, which is legal, moral, and spiritual all at once, that the integrity of the Self is paramount, whether that Self be an individual or a body of individuals joined together into a family, a community, or a large body of society.  Violation of such integrity or wholeness through the causing of harm is conceived of, legally, as crime; morally and spiritually, it may be considered sin.  The principle is established in the very name of this type of government: Consensus, indicating the consent of those who make it up.  Government, rather than being something imposed, often coercively, upon the people by a hierarchy above them, is made up of all of the people in a very direct way.

Later that same day —

There is no such thing, in Consensus philosophy and culture, as a government separate from the people.  Everything begins with the Self, the first Self that is each individual human being.  Inasmuch as humans as biological beings are also social beings, Self is also expressed in the yearning for Other, which finds a home in relationship, each relationship or group of relationships themselves forming their own Selves: friendship, sexual pairing and partnership, family, community, Consensus.  Because all levels of society begin with that fundamental Self of each individual, therefore the Self is sacrosanct; its autonomy is the first building block of society.  To violate the Selfhood of an individual is like the breaking open an atom: it’s the beginning of destruction.  The Self, of course, is much more fragile than the atom: it took until the 20th century C.E. for humans to learn how to split the atom; but it didn’t take us long at all to come up with all manner of ways to cleave the human soul, and the chain reaction from that has never ended.  Only some have learned to restore it, only some have learned ways of living with one another in such ways that the violation of soul and Self isn’t inextricably a part of human education, of human “conditioning.”  Even the most intelligent and soul-preserving societies make mistakes.

Consensus begins by recognizing those two aspects of what it is to be human: Self, and Other, in which each Other is also a Self. Society, culture, government is nothing more and nothing less than the provisional solution humans have come to in any given time and place to balance between Self and Other; or shall we say, the multiplicity of Selves, each with its own sacrosanct Integrity.  Thus, the laws of Consensus begin with the laws intended to protect the Self at its most basic level, that of the individual.  Everything else flows upward from that.

And now here I am reading more about consensus & related ideas — collaborative decisionmaking, collective intelligence, sociocracy — all of which reflect the ethic that I was writing about: the idea that every individual has value, & that the integrity & selfhood of every individual must be protected.

But the books I’m reading are taking me even one step beyond that: recognition that each & every individual, without exception, must have a say in any decision that affects her or his life. Government not through the coercion of the powerful over the less-powerful, but government by the consent of all.

Not only are these books helping me to articulate this, but they’re also teaching me the techniques & strategies that can make it possible.  Both in my stories, & in the Real World of which we all are part.

Needless to say, I’ll be writing more about this.

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