Conscience of Community

One of the great questions of our time, or any other for that matter is: “what is consciousness?” Some think it doesn’t exist. Others think it’s everywhere. Regardless, we are nowhere near to solving this seemingly unsolvable question. But why should it be unsolvable?

Now a new project currently under review hopes to close in on some answers. It proposes to draw up a suite of experiments that will expose theories of consciousness to a merciless spotlight, in the hope of ruling out at least some of them. The initial aim is for the advocates of two leading theories to agree on a protocol that would put predictions of their ideas to the test. Instead of each camp championing its own view and demolishing others: researchers, funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation will collaborate and agree to publish in advance how discriminating experiments might be conducted — and then respect the outcomes.

According to the cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene of the Collège de France in Paris conscious behavior arises when we hold a piece of information in a “global workspace” within the brain. This argument assumes all of cognition, including consciousness, is merely a form of computation; just an algorithm. This view is dominant in scientific communities worldwide. It also provides the basis of motivation for the technical community who thinks we can create an artificial brain since with enough processing power – it’s only a hack away. This hypothesis is called global workspace theory (GWT).

Dominant doesn’t mean consensus though. The other view competing for viability is one championed by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Tononi and his collaborator Christof Koch, chief scientist and president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. To them consciousness is not a product of just inputs and outputs but rather an intrinsic property of the right kind of cognitive network, one of specific features in its architecture. Tononi calls this view integrated information theory (IIT).


The Consciousness of a Community

Personally I’m a proponent of Tononi’s integrated information theory; but not just as it relates to individual human consciousness. I can extrapolate and envision it relating to how a community is designed and develops. We can’t just “hack it to get it where we want.” We have to have an architecture or foundation to start with: and how this foundation is designed will determine what can be built on top of it. From this architecture will come a serendipitous synthesis that will be a product of its components. These components consist of a mash-up of a community’s values, norms and the expectations of its residents created through both overt and subliminal means. Think of it like the genetic makeup of an offspring. They may or may not directly resemble their parents – but the parts are in there; whether they be dominant or recessive, they’re just waiting to show themselves down the line when paired in the right combination. We can’t just wish something into existence by adding a few more inputs and taking away a few others.

Collective mind

Over the last few years, the philosophy or Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari has dominated my societal thinking as I’ve attempted to “find a better path to an evolved society.” In their treatise One Thousand Plateaus, written in 1980, Deleuze and Guattari introduced the concept of rhizomes as a metaphor for the constructs of a society.

“A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles … the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states … The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots.” A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. (A Thousand Plateaus)

I distilled this rhizome metaphor down to the community level in my piece Growing an Evolved Society. One of the main tenets of this rhizome hypothesis is the assumption that the workings of our society (or community) lie on the Smooth Space, or underlying social architectural of a community and its foundational definitions or components.

The platform or naked infrastructure on which the community and in turn the array of “need and opportunity based activities” operate is called the Smooth Space. This platform is not formally defined, but rather takes the form of the influences that inhabit it. These influences can include meaningful communication, actions of existing organizations (government and other) as well as social norms, ideals and community expectations. In the context of my model, Community 3.0, the Smooth Space includes the small business community, non-governmental organizations (Front Porches), the members of the community who are their customers and members; along with the societal norms they create. What a community does and how it creates its Smooth Space will determine its personality and the well-being of its populace. It is the duty of the Rhizome structure and its Smooth Space to accommodate and nurture the intangible, serendipitous, sensual and tactical engagements of all the members of its community that best serve the collective (i.e. empathy, creativity, collaboration and self-actualization).

Upon the foundation of the Smooth Space a community is built. The Smooth Space will take either an intentional form … or an accidental one if no conscious effort is made to create otherwise. As with Tononi’s theory of consciousness, you can’t create something if the right ingredients aren’t present to build it on.

The subsequent actions of the community are then dependent on the norms and expectations first established in the development of the Smooth Space. Deleuze and Guattari call these actions the Body Without Organs.

Body Without Organs is what happens, the actions. It is the result of what the Rhizome social philosophy using the Nomadic actions of its components operating on the Smooth Space. In itself the Body Without Organs has no form until the variables of the community infrastructure are injected into it. The community’s personality and overall state of well-being are the results of the interactions between its residents. The individual and collective projects and serendipitous acts of goodwill (or malice) that result from the values established in the development of the Smooth Space compose its Body Without Organs. If empathy, inclusion and connection isn’t a norm of the community – what happens there will reflect it. You can’t build on what isn’t there.

We can all organize annual cancer marches and fundraising efforts until we have no more free weekends; but they will still only be one-offs, single events that don’t leverage beyond their singular purpose – if there isn’t a deep foundation of benevolence built into the community in the first place (Smooth Space components). If we still find reasons to exclude people based on where they used to live, what color they are or how old they are – our efforts will produce little lasting value; and can often do more harm than good. Our primary focus must first be to create our Smooth Space, our foundation where our seeds of goodwill can grow rather than just consumed at the moment.

But what are the components that we’ll need to create this fertile ground?

Every community must be responsible for its own Smooth Space and making it unique to that community. This is your community’s personality. That said, certain elements are nonnegotiable. These elements must transcend political, geographic and ideological differences.

  • Every member of the community is unique and adds to fabric of the community. Everyone has something to offer and everyone should be heard – no mater their age or social standing. It should be responsibility of all us to help everyone realize their own worth and where they can contribute.
  • Tradition and the static nature of institutions cannot be revered to the point of impeding flourishment. Existing structure and archaic systems are too often the foundation and reinforcement of ideologies, prejudice and exclusion. The value of the status quo and its trappings must continually be assessed.
  • The ideal of resource maximization must permeate all our actions and reactions. ”Don’t worry about what you don’t have … use what you have.
  • Conservation and environmental constraint must be held at the highest of priorities. Unfettered growth and consumption must be curtailed. Every action we make, macro and micro, must be looked at in so far as what effect it has within the larger ecological system, societal and environmental.
  • Wealth is not just about money. It’s about quality of life: and your “personal currency” can take any form.
  • Cross pollinate – personally and professionally.
  • The future of the community is its youth. We nurture them and things will take care of themselves.


Constructing the Smooth Space

How do we create this foundation for our community though? How do we establish the values and norms to guide ourselves and our children; and help them build the type of places we will all be proud of? But we can’t just sit around and have conversations about it. Talk is easy, but most often it’s fleeting. Conversation seldom roots anything beyond more conversation. Action begets more action – and with it the behavior that sets community norms.

We need to create community ideals and norms that are based on action and engagements among residents; ones that nurture environments and gives permission to everyone to venture out and attempt whatever they choose. This society of permission is made up of residents who don’t just lobby for services, services they feel the government entitles them to – but rather actually go out and act to create their own solutions. Our communities must be workspaces of action, not just talk. It’s from these actions and the relationships they create, will come the norms, values and expectations we need to create the architectural foundation of community will sit on.

Our paradox is that in order for us to create these actions; we need the space that contains the components that are best created from these exact actions. It’s the chicken or egg first dilemma. How do we rectify this? We must force the seeding of interaction and engagement— specifically by using peer leaders. I imagine the mechanics of this seeding process below:

  • Build a team of peer-leading evangelists to anchor the efforts. Often hidden in weeds are the true leaders of the community – the ones people really follow. Fight the urge to fall back on community icons from the status quo; instead identify key community segments (often underserved, ferret out the influencers and solicit their input. Find that one key member that will contribute in outsized proportions: and when you find them:
    • Create a web page announcing your collaborative intention (brand accordingly)
    • Breakdown target segments and research peer leader prospects
    • Recruit
    • Meet people where they are using their physical hubs (Front Porches)
  • Build your community’s Front Porch network:
    • Identify locally owned centers of current activity that can be transformed into civic hubs of engagement working from your peer leader efforts
    • Use a combination of direct sales (via evangelists), public relations and covert guerilla marketing
    • Leverage the owners, employees and patrons to build your effort’s member base and network
  • Build your community participant base via the efforts of your Front Porch network:
    • Provide member acquisition training and guidance to Front Porch management and employees
    • Reach out to and organize in local high schools and colleges seeding a cause-specific young generation movement (e.g. green and conservation actions)
    • Social media, public relations focusing on community specific causes
  • Template civic volunteer projects, specific to your community, designed to kick-start the emotional momentum for a new street-driven empathetic civic engagement attitude (Body Without Organs)
    • Use your Front Porch network as the physical presence and your evangelists to bring in a diverse offering of participants
    • Create a clearinghouse for ideas from all people in your community to be implemented now and later as appropriate
    • Engage with other communities adopting the Community 3.0 model by sharing your ideas and execution techniques
  • Construct/acquire a communication platform/vehicle that will maintain the emotional momentum and upkeep of the Smooth Space foundational components. The building process must be ongoing to combat outside influences fighting to undermine transition to a more evolved inclusive community (often from traditional sources of power – corporate, government, etc.):
    • Community-wide guerilla organization and participation
    • Content-driven Front Porch based communication
    • Civic-focused content and messaging
    • Database-driven customization and personalization


Call to Action

Putting the above tasks in play may seem like a lot – but it doesn’t have to be. Just take each one at a time. Building your initial team of diverse peer leaders is step one. This is recruiting function is not unlike that a headhunter would use. I did this for fifteen years. The process isn’t magical: it’s methodical. Patience is not just a plus … it’s mandatory. So strap in for the long haul; but it will be well worth your effort.


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One thought on “Conscience of Community

  1. This is excellent Clay! We are working on some of these efforts in Iowa City but have much more work to do.

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