Introducing Forks vs. Knives

Format note: Written as a grant proposal.

Forks vs. Knives – Developing the code that governs us

Describe your project

Reaching consensus is never easy and when it gets really tough some reach for their knives. We say, drop the knives and pick up the forks.

Imagine a site – fvsk.org – where each community can store its social pact – be it legal, ethical or religious code – and share it with its members and the world. Much like the social coding sites – Github and Bitbucket – the site will let each community member create her own version, a “fork”, and then share and discuss it with others. Forking becomes an opportunity to reflect, explore and innovate.

But we will not stop at that, communities need a way to agree on a mutual social pact. FvsK will support a well-defined enactment process for accepting forks and updating a pact. Using the power of distributed version control systems (DVCS) such as Git and Mercurial we will create a system that keeps the entire history of changes to the social pact and allows each member to propose changes. We will use the key processes of DVCS – forking and merging – to encourage free flow of ideas and to formulate agreement. On top of the DVCS system we will use tested organizational workflow solutions (such as BPM) to model the current process of pact revision approval and create simple tools to improve that process.

Our long-term vision is to create a system that can serve any size of community – from the manifest of a small ad-hoc activist group to a country’s statutory law – providing a way to keep their pact dynamic and encourage members’ participation.

This project will launch in Israel, one of the most challenging political environments today, where opposing communities are torn over national, religious, economic, racial and cultural differences. The future of our region is dependent on gaining the permission to read, write, and enact the codes that govern us, and to dare innovate, engage and affect them.

During the first year of this project we will build a system to serve two Kibbutz communities to be elected from the 256 “Kibbutzim” in Israel. Being a communal village of a few hundred people, the bylaws of the Kibbutz are critical to its members. The issues of private vs. communal property are hotly debated as kibbutzim adapt to economic changes and the evolving needs and wants of their members.

How will your project improve the delivery of news and information to geographic communities?

The information stored on FvsK – the social pact and members’ forks – will be available in an open format and easy to embed in other sites. Local news organization will gain easy access to community generated information and a simple way to drive attention to a call for change: Tweet the diff. For example, each Kibutz has a monthly newspaper in which volunteers are covering local news and members share their views. We will serve these newspapers by feeding them news from their bylaws repository – enacted changes, created forks and heated debates. More than that, FvsK.org will use trackback to publish members and newspapers opinions on specific forks, creating a new distribution channel for blogs and newspapers.

What unmet need does your proposal answer?

Social structures and governance models try to balance individual freedom and the common good. Democracy has elevated the majority rule and the strive for wide consensus as governing values. But due to the high costs of coordination, leadership and vision had to be trusted with the elected representatives and civic participation has been minimized to the alienating level of the vote.

Moreover, we have trapped our elected officials, unable to consider alternative paths in fear of being accused of betraying the ideology that put them in power. In our media environment we end up electing leaders to fight for yesterday’s ideas, rather than to truly innovate and lead. Public policy should be made in the open and bold propositions should be heard, respected and considered.

True free collaboration is a set of forks and merges, the other options lead to deadlock, to stagnation, to the tyranny of the unimaginative unchallenged consensus. Our region has become the poster-child for policy deadlock, for wars over how history rather than vision should dictate the future. The kibbutz, embodied the forward-looking social visions of Israeli pioneers in the previous century. But in the past few decades, as the social and economic tides have changed, it has lost a bit of that spirit and many of these communities failed to evolve fast and modify their social pacts.

We believe that both self-governing communities and creative leadership require new tools for policy making and consensus building. We believe such tools are currently developed and perfected by the Free Software community. We want to fork some of these tools, customize them and use them to extend civic engagement.

How is your idea new?

We have been following some attempts of our friends in OpenGov movements around the world at creating open law repositories. Some focus on storing the data in accessible formats. Others attempt to foster engagement through wiki-style collaborative systems.

While we admire these processes we believe the centralized wiki model is problematic when it comes to forward-looking policies. Wikis are great at describing the past, but they are very lacking in promoting parallel visions for the future(s). Like policy makers, Software developers as well are occupied with writing the code to describe the future (rather than the past).

In the past few years a growing trend has pushed these coders away from the centralized collaborative model and into distributed systems. The whole concept of distributed version control systems in code has boomed in the past few years and the revolutionary collaborative process championed by sites such as Github.com & Bitbucket.org has taken the Free Software world by storm. Yet these systems have been limited to “social coding”—collaboration on developing the technical code of software. We believe communities can use similar processes to collaboratively develop the codes that governs them.

Standing on the shoulders of giants, we would like to apply our research and experience to build a well structured online social process that augments offline social procedures, respecting the political cultures it functions within and yet seeks to help them evolve. Finally, from the news-reporting perspective, a system like FvsK would help journalists better describe and analyze the political process and would provide their readers with accessible tools for following and fact checking the evolving political stories.

What will you have changed by the end of the project?

When in conflict, the voices of extremists are very loud as the majority keeps silent. Too often, the conflict is left in the hands of extremists and the community is torn by opposing views and competing egos. Thanks to the simplicity by which each member can offer her suggestions and views, we can get more members involved in the the public debate and empower the sane majority to drive consensus and prevent a split.

Why are you the right person or team to complete this project?

The Public Knowledge Workshop (PKW) is a Israeli non profit championing the release of public information in open standards and developing open source projects to encourage public debate and produce public knowledge. Our first project is Open-Knesset, an Open Parliament site based on the data available in the official Knesset site and supported by a team of volunteer developers and political activists. Although young, the site is constantly cited by elected officials as an inspiring example of networked civic engagement and how it can advance Israeli politics.

The group combines multiple skills and substantial experience in entrepreneurial initiatives, software development, interaction design and political activism.

Benny Daon- An entrepreneur, the founder and ex-CEO of Shunra Software, and today a coordinator and developer in the PKW. Benny co-founded the Israeli user group of python web developers and enjoys hacking with vim and Django. Benny’s grandfather was one of a founders of a Kibutz in southern Israel and a part of his family still lives there.

Zohar Arad – Zohar is an expert frontend developer, specializing in XHTML, CSS & javascript. Until recently Zohar was a leading developer for Metacafe, one of the first video sites. When forced to code a server, Zohar is fluent in both Django and Rails.

Mushon Zer-Aviv designs, writes and lectures internationally on Free Collaboration, new media and political engagement. He founded multiple Free Software initiatives (including ShiftSpace.org) as a designer, mitigating the technical and the social. Mushon is the co-author of the experimental book “Collaborative Futures”. In the past Mushon held multiple positions in Kibbutz Yiftah’s education system. We will use our connections within Israel, the kibbutz movement and the tech world and the academy to further develop and consult on the project. We intend to continue consulting our friends and colleagues in this field, like the lead thinkers Clay Shirky (NYU) and Yochai Benkler (Harvard, Kibbutz Shizafon).

What terms best describe your project?

  • Civic engagement
  • Free collaboration
  • social pact
  • Free speech
  • Forking
  • Merging
  • Diff
  • DVCS
  • Kibbutz
  • Conflict resolution
  • Middle East
  • Israel