OSEC Coordinating Action

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It is not enough for an intentional community like the Open source ecology community to have good resources, funding, land, tools, etc. Many such communities have been founded over the years and most (with some significant exceptions) end in failure. Why? The simple answer is that the people involved caused it to fail. This page explores some of the very underpinnings of civilization and how they might be applied to a prototype OSE community. Some of this material is drawn from the work of H. Maturana and Neurolinguistic Programming.

Living in Isolation

From time to time, individuals become disgusted with society and seek to leave it - completely. Let's consider what it means to exist completely isolated from all other human beings.

First, you need a place to go, presumably with no one around. Assuming that you find such a place, the hermit must establish a life support system for himself (or herself, naturally). To survive, one must have:

  • Water
  • Food
  • Shelter
  • Clothing

Let us further assume that this person will start with ABSOLUTELY nothing. No clothing, no tools, no food, nothing. Admittedly, this is a silly premise, but it is important for the conclusion.

Upon arriving in this new eden, the hermit must locate a source of water before anything else. It is possible to exist for a short period of time without food, but water is essential. So a stream is found with water that (hopefully) will not make him sick. Drinking from a stream is pretty easy - cupped hands form a vessel will hold water long enough to drink.

While that will satisfy thirst immediately, the hermit needs a way to carry and store water for use away from the stream. Now the hermit has a problem. He needs to build a vessel that will carry and hold water. There are many solutions to this problem but let's say that he knows of a deposit of clay on the stream bank and decides to make a pot to hold his water. Being a clever fellow, he digs out the clay and works it to remove stones and other materials. Once satisfied, he shapes it into a pot.

Now the pot needs to be fired (ignoring that glazing it will help immensely). Okay, he needs to build a fire. Now there is a different set of problems. He needs to gather wood (twigs and branches might work, but to cut wood, he needs a cutting tool of some kind), he needs to lay the fire, and light it. Without matches or even a striker for flint, making fire is actually rather difficult. He looks for rocks that might strike a spark off each other. Searching takes time and experimenting with different rocks takes more time.

After a while, he starts to get hungry. Putting aside his pottery firing project for the moment, he goes in search of food. If he is very lucky, there will be wild food nearby that will sustain him. It has to be something that can be eaten directly, because he has yet to produce fire. Perhaps he finds some nuts that can be eaten directly (some nuts require cooking or leeching before eaten). He uses some rocks to crack them open. After eating a few handfuls, he gets thirsty. It would be nice to have water here, but he doesn't, so he makes his way back to the stream and drinks. It would also be nice to carry some of the nuts to the fire so he can eat while trying to get the fire started. Now he has another problem - building a basket or something to carry nuts in.

This story goes on and on. Note that it is a story of tool making and fabrication - two of the topics that are at the heart of OSE. One problem leads to another that requires new tools to make. One of the biggest problems that the hermit faces in this situation is that he must do EVERYTHING by himself. There is no one to delegate to or trade off with. If he is VERY skilled and lucky, he might managed to survive long enough to create some of the very basic tools he needs to survive in the wilderness. It requires a deep understanding of how to survive and having a working knowledge of many practical skills. In fact, a larger collection of skills that one person might reasonably have.

Living with Another

Adding even one more person to the scenario changes it fundamentally and greatly improves the chances for survival. One person can gather the nuts while the other tries to get the fire going. Once the pot is built, one can fetch water while the other starts to work on building a shelter, or hunting game, or making clothing. With multiple people, a division of labor is possible. Over time, individuals will develop specialties - one is good at cooking, one good at hunting, etc. Adding more people spreads out the labor even more. With enough people, there is time to think about better solutions than ad hoc ones. There is time to share knowledge and teach each other skills. There is time to plan and prepare for the future, which may include adverse weather conditions, predators, etc.

Coordinating Action

Given the above, working together increases the chance of survival and improves the quality of life for all participants. There are other reasons for people coming together in groups, pro-creating being very high on that list. However, once two or more people start to work together, a new problem enters the picture that has little to do with tools or resources. How do two or more people coordinate their actions? Using the story above, two people are working together to create a tool that will carry and hold water (a clay pot). Communication is needed to determine who will try to get the fire started and who will go gather nuts. There is a theory that language arose in human beings specifically to solve this kind of problem: the coordination of action between two or more people.

Let's drill down into the specifics of this communication and listen in on the conversation between a man and a woman:

MAN:  Woman!  Go gather some nuts while I try to get this stupid fire to light.
WOMAN:  Dude, go get them yourself.  I don't even know where they are.
MAN:  **sigh** They are right over there, under that big nut tree.
WOMAN:  You've been trying to get that fire started for hours.  I'm better at lighting fires than you are.  Why don't I light the fire and YOU go get the nuts.
MAN:  Whatever.  Ok, you light the fire and I'll go get the nuts.
WOMAN:  Great.  I like nuts.

Embedded in this conversation is both the promise of civilization and it's downfall. Coordination of action, division of labor, and specialization is what leads to the creation of a civilization. Poor communication and assumptions lead to conflict, strife, and loss of trust.

In the dialog above, the man is trying to light a fire, presumably without much success. The man is hungry and requests that the woman get some nuts to eat. The woman claims to have more skill and offers to light the fire if he will gather the nuts. The man agrees (accepting her offer). From a semantics point of view, we see the following:

REQUEST:  woman gather nuts.
OFFER:  light fire.
REQUEST:  man gather nuts.
OFFER ACCEPTED:  man agrees that woman will light fire.
PROMISE:  man will gather nuts.

On the surface, the man and woman have coordinated their actions: the man will gather nuts and the woman will light the fire. Unfortunately, there are some hidden assumptions that could lead to problems. One of the biggest problems is that no mention was made of timing. Neither the woman nor the man said anything at all about WHEN they would perform their tasks. The man might go off, collect as many nuts has he could carry and come back to find the woman sleeping beside the fire pit. So, while the man has fulfilled his promise of gathering the nuts, the woman has not fulfilled her promise of light the fire - yet. When the man returns, he's quite angry to find her sleeping and wakes her up, confronting her with the fact that she has broken her promise to light the fire. She objects by saying that there was no agreement on WHEN the fire would get lit. The man assumed that she would do it immediately, since the need is great. He is angry about a broken promise, when, in fact, the terms of the promise were ill-specified. Technically, she has NOT broken her promise, but his assumptions on the time frame lead him to the conclusion that she has broken the promise.

These three actions (Request, Offer, and Promise) are at the heart of coordinating actions between any set of individuals and also between sets of groups. By examining these actions in greater detail and understanding all of their parameters, it is possible to develop a communication style that enhances trust between participants. Trust leads to improved work flow flow and efficiencies. Trust is an important thing to consider in group dynamics. I can trust myself to do a task that I have set for myself, but how can I believe that someone else will perform something on by behalf, even if there is a promise in place?


(expand on the issue of trust here)

Coordination Actions

(here we explain the basic actions in more detail and describe how they work and how they can go wrong)


Who What When Conditionals Acceptance


Who What When Conditionals Acceptance


Who What When Conditionals Acceptance Acknowledgment