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Our Common Language

Uncovering and Understanding Our Common Language
Uncovering and Understanding
Our Common Language

This article will appear in the Community Technology Review, Fall 2002.

Doug Schuler (editor)
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

There's an old fable about three bricklayers who were asked what they were doing. The first replied that he was laying bricks. The second reported that he was constructing a straight wall. The third, a somewhat dreamy type, stated that he was building a cathedral.

Readers of the Community Technology Review all know that they are involved in construction projects as well. Although our bricks are less physical and our walls are less visible, we all hope that we are building cathedrals nevertheless, though ours are built upon conversations and relationships. Our "cathedrals" also must struggle against the inertia of gravity and other powerful forces.

Without overstraining the metaphor, it should be noted that our "blue prints" are hazy and ill-defined. Worse, our fellow "builders" may not be aware of each other and the immense intelligence and vitality that they show in their thoughts and actions. For this reason, in November 2001, we initiated a large, participatory "pattern language" project that we hope will elicit, integrate, and illuminate some of the knowledge that inspires our community -- in a very broad sense. We hope that this effort might be able to portray at least one such blue print of the new vast cathedral that we are all building together.

Patterns and the idea of a pattern language are concepts of Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley, and are presented in "A Pattern Language" (Oxford University Press, 1977). This book provides 253 patterns for the construction of towns and houses that are beautiful, convivial, and timeless. According to Alexander et al, "A pattern is a careful description of a perennial solution to a recurring problem." A pattern language is, "A network of patterns that call upon one another. Patterns help us remember insights and knowledge about design and can be used in combination to create solutions." Part of the power of the approach (which we're to emulating in our project) comes from the common format that each pattern follows: title, problem, discussion, and solution. Each pattern also contains illustrative graphics at the beginning and end, as well as pointers to other especially relevant patterns in the language. We are hoping to do the same in the area of information and communication as Alexander and his colleagues did for architecture and building.

We have conceived the pattern language project as an open, participatory project and we are enlisting people from all over the world to provide ideas, the "bricks and mortar" for the pattern language that the broad community will construct over the next few years. Approximately 140 people from over 20 countries have submitted about 170 "proto-patterns" (submissions which will considered for inclusion into the final pattern language) to our web site ( so far. From those I've selected six submissions that represent a good cross section of the pattern set as it's evolving. Although it's unclear whether these seven patterns constitute a "sub-language" in Alexander's terminology, they help show some of the diversity of the submissions that have been collected so far. They also demonstrate the multiple levels that the patterns occupy.

Philosophical Orientation
   Information Ecology (Richard Lowenberg)

Design Strategies
   Collaborative Design of Community Information Systems (Jim Zappen, Teri Harrison, Victoria Moore, Ashley Williams)
   Conversational Support Across Boundaries (John Thomas, Catalina Danis, Alison Lee)

Research and Technological Development
   Virtual Community Open Source Engine (Marco Benini, Fiorella De Cindio, Leonardo Sonnante)

Resources and Services
   Mobile ICT Learning Facilities for 3rd World Communities (Grant Hearn)
   Mutual-Help Medical Websites (Patricia Radin)


Philosophical Orientation

Information Ecology

Richard Lowenberg
Davis Community Network

Problem: The dynamic radiative information environment, the flow of information, and the sensory and communicative nature of information, have not been included in most whole-systems ecological thinking and applications, to date. It is a major error in human understanding that will have troubling consequences, as we increasingly interact with and manipulate this fragile ecosystem.

Discussion: Ecology is the study of the complex relationships between living and non-living, inter-dependent dynamic systems. It describes the fragile balance in which such systems interact and by which they co-evolve. Information Ecology extends our basic understanding of ecology to include the physical, social and economic transformations being wrought by the rapid developments in information technology, networked learning, and by our becoming an increasingly networked "society of mind".

Information is not just data or bits. It is not simply a useful natural resource; a commodity that can be sent and received, bought and sold, and regulated. Information must also be considered as patterns of perception, cognitive relationships and differences. The flow of information determines the course of social evolution. Decisions regarding spectrum allocation, regulatory interventions, copyright, privacy, digital divides, technology development or "new economies" cannot be effective, if made without an ecological context.

Today's Information Revolution, if it is primarily a technology driven revolution, will likely result in increased consumerism, social systematization, bureaucracy and waste. The more cumulatively energy consuming and less ecologically sustainable, the more fragile technological progress will become; and ultimately more disruptive in its (inevitable?) potential failure.

Solution: There is much to do, to integrate matter, energy and information into a whole systems ecology. Becoming a bit smarter about the way the world works, may also be dangerous, coming into conflict with long dominant, vested-interest belief systems and ideological fictions. Education, thoughtful exchange, research, creative practice and respect for differences are all needed. There is no solution, however. We can only begin to take small "steps towards an ecology of mind."

Design Strategies

Collaborative Design of Community Information Systems

James P. Zappen, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Teresa M. Harrison, University at Albany, SUNY
Victoria Moore, Delmar Learning
Ashley Williams, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Problem: Many cities in the United States, especially in the Northeast, are stagnant and decaying, with consequences both economic and social. Populations, especially minority populations with low levels of income and education, have limited access to new computer technologies and thus limited access to information about education and employment opportunities and social and recreational activities. These populations are mirror images of the digital divide.

Discussion: The Troy Community Networking Project ( is developing a youth-services information system in an effort to improve the quality of life for young people in one of these communities, Troy, New York. This system, called Connected Kids (, will provide information about recreational, educational, and cultural resources plus multimedia content developed by and for young people. System developers are using participatory-design (PD) processes to conceive and build this complex technical/social system. The project embraces of diversity of participants within a complex "activity system" representing city, county, public and private schools, and youth-services organizations. We brought these participants together in a series of PD sessions to test our understanding of the system specifications as realized in our initial prototype. The PD sessions renewed and revised our understanding of our shared purpose, expanded our understanding of our audiences and users, and identified system enhancements through hands-on activity and collaborative discussion. The sessions also revealed contradictions or tensions within the activity system and thus invited changes in the prototype and in the activity system itself. Currently we are extending this work to include PD sessions with parents and young people and computer reconstruction and training activities for young people in local after-school programs.

Solution: We believe that bringing together a diversity of participants in hands-on activity and collaborative group discussion directed toward a shared purpose can help communities to build both better technical systems and stronger social communities over the long term. PD processes help people to find their own solutions to their problems, their own ways to help themselves, their organizations, their families, and their communities.

Conversational Support Across Boundaries

John C. Thomas, Catalina Danis, Alison Lee
IBM T. J. Watson Research Center
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Problem: Although thought goes into how best to break up complex processes into smaller sub-processes, it inevitably happens that unanticipated coordination and communication is required among groups in order to meet the overall goal. However, absent regular communication across boundaries, groups develop an "in-group" vs. "out-group" view thus making cooperative problem solving and action difficult.

Discussion: Such difficulties from lack of regular communication occur in many settings; e.g., isolated academic departments in a University; service personnel not having a way to communicate common problems back to developers; management and union leadership only talking during tense contract negotiations.

Supporting conversation across boundaries did occur at Hanna Pavillion, a psychiatric hospital where I worked. Each shift overlapped a half hour with the next and some personnel from both shifts participated in daily hand-off meetings and used on-going jointly produced nursing notes as well as informal gatherings to foster coordination across shifts.

In June 2001, IBM held WorldJam, a 3-day virtual on-line meeting to which all IBM employees world-wide were invited to participate and discuss common problems thus allowing conversation and interchange across organizational boundaries.

Solution: No matter how you organize a complex social structure, provide support (time, place, atmosphere and motivation) for conversations across any boundaries created. Then, when emergencies or breakdowns occur, people will engage in collaborative problem solving rather than finger pointing.


Research and Technological Development

Virtual Community Open Source Engine

Marco Benini, University of Insubria (
F. De Cindio, University of Milano (
L. Sonnante, The Milano Community Network Foundation (

Problem: Web sites and portals are often established by government or commercial enterprises and designed by computer professionals to inform people and provide services. In the usual scenario, people are conceived as users or customers -- not citizens -- and play no role in the design and implementation of services which could help shape the "network society." This prevents people from being meaningful participants while depriving society of the collective "knowledge base" that the citizenry has to offer. This suggests a more practical task in the short-term: creating a tool which makes the knowledge generated by the community readily available (and easy to extract). We think that this knowledge is produced by the mutual enrichment of information and discussion. Present tools lack of enough integration among the features available for managing information publishing (to allow it to every user) and discussion among users.

Discussion: The major use of the Internet by government and commercial enterprises is informing citizens (conceived as users or customers) through broadcasting (one-to-many communication); providing on-line services (which often replicate existing services) sometimes extending them to the facilities that the net offers. Recently sites and portals also include venues for two-way communication, i.e. free and unstructured discussions, typically through public forums. In most cases the goal of these areas is to encourage the creation of a community of users, as a way for attracting and retaining the attention of users, often with the intent of selling "eyeballs" to advertisers. It's important to realize that a community of citizens, through their conversations, enriches information and assesses services. We have proposed VIRTUOSE (VIRTual CommUnity Open Source Engine), an open-source engine for managing virtual communities, chiefly through integrating information publishing and discussion facilities. VIRTUOSE uses the message as the fundamental entity within the system. The message constitutes both the unit of information to be published and the unit of discussion among people. This is accomplished through message structures that can be defined by virtual community administrator when he or she creates a new conference. Messages are grouped into conferences. Users access conferences through views which filter messages according to users own specifications.

Solution: Develop a comprehensive tool for virtual communities management whose distinguished feature is an enhanced conferencing management system that focuses on structured messages as fundamental units. Make this freely available to the development community to continue the graceful evolution of the technology base while promoting full participation for all citizens in the network society.


Resources and Services

Mobile ICT Laboratories for Disadvantaged Communities

Grant Hearn
South Africa

Problem: The lack of access to technology and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in particular is an acute problem known as the 'Digital Divide'. This problem is partly one of both resource and location but is also one in which the term 'digital' has two meanings, viz. digital technology (as opposed to analogue); and digital in the sense of numbers as they relate to mathematics, technology, and the sciences.

Discussion: Digital Divide solutions should focus on promoting: i) Greater awareness and experience of science and technology; ii) awareness, experience and understanding of ICT and its modern role; iii) career possibilities represented by pursuing knowledge and qualifications in science and technology; iv) awareness of the possibilities of participation in the electronic economy.

The two major contributing factor to the digital divide are lack of access to ICT's and the inability to afford them. Access to technology should include more than computers and connections. Many issues affect real access to technology, including community capacity, relevance, socio-cultural factors, local and macro-economic environments, gender issues, and political will. Without real access, people are unable to use and embrace technology to the extent that they can use it to improve their lives.

Solution: The provision of travelling ICT laboratories the operators of which are trained educators, could play a strong role in bringing the ICT mountain to the disempowered. Such a self-contained unit with its own power generation ability will allow many people to experience and learn about ICT's whether they are remotely located, or simply living in communities which are too poor to allow access otherwise.

Mutual-Help Medical Websites

Patricia Radin, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication California State University-Hayward

Problem: People confronted with serious health issues urgently need timely, personalized information and caring support. Unfortunately, it is rare that busy health professionals or a patient¹s own friends and family can satisfy this strong need for communication.

Discussion: Sometimes, a medically oriented Web community becomes a powerful source of medical information, support and even new friendships. How can a site be designed to promote this useful outcome?

The key seems to lie in trust, a necessary condition for mutual help to thrive. Therefore, we looked at trust-building strategies in an exemplary online community, Breast Cancer Action Nova Scotia (, the largest and oldest site for breast cancer survivors. Studies show the process for building trust involves increasing levels of risk-taking: People lower their guard with individuals when they have something (such as breast cancer) in common. Sharing personal information and doing things together are steps toward greater trust and intimacy.

The Canadian site encourages trust through the following design features:

  1. Nonprofit sponsorship by breast cancer survivors and vigilant protection from harassment reduce risks to participants. Simultaneously, the ability to "lurk" allows visitors to assess the benefits of participating while remaining invisible.
  2. A password-protected "biog" section and a more public "profile" option allow users to disclose as much as they wish about their lives.
  3. The site promotes participation in international gatherings, fundraising, book authorship, and many other shared experiences.

Solution: Websites that are designed with trustworthiness in mind can promote effective mutual help online, providing vital information and comfort to medical patients.


One of the critical, yet extremely challenging -- aspects of the project is ensuring that the whole area of civic and community communication and information is addressed. This admittedly vast area, bringing together philosophy, on-the-ground pragmatism, critique, activism, policy, education, technological development, and research, will be -- hopefully! -- brought together into a linked knowledge structure that will prove to be very useful. Complicating the challenge is the fact that we hope to bring in voices that are often unheard: ethnic minorities, women, unemployed, the poor, elderly, people in developing countries, prisoners, people with disabilities, indigenous people.

If you think you know of an important idea that is not yet present, please add it to the system. You can keep the submission private while you work on it over time if you'd like. The ultimate pattern language will undoubtedly be richer with your contribution!

Public Sphere Project

Pattern Language Project

Pattern Language Project -- Discussion List


Updated: September 9, 2002
Archived CPSR Information
Created before October 2004

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