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Engine of More: The Maths of Consensus

Engine of More: The Maths of Consensus

A concept I’ve been conjuring about with is why it takes so long and is so difficult to achieve a consensus in a big hackerspace with a flat hierarchy. Prompted in no small part by trying to think about how a new hackerspace might work and why things were quick to decide in the early day of the Nottingham Hackspace and much much slower and harder in the later days. a handy way to describe this is using Metcalfe’s law.

MathOfHackerspace.jpg

Metcalfe’s Law, also known as network effect describes something like a computer or telephone network. As telephones or nodes are added to a network, the number of connections is directly proportional to the number of nodes. One telephone on its own is useless, it can make no connections at all, two telephones can make only one connection, but 5 telephones can make 10 connections, add just two more telephones to 12 and you can make 66 connections. The telephone works better with the more people that have one. Obviously this is also true of the internet and email or even a social group and its power to influence.

The mathematics for Metcalfe’s law is that the connections in a network are proportional to the square of the number of nodes (telephone in my example above). Whilst in a telephone of computer network this is highly beneficial, it can have a detrimental effect on the speed and ease of decision making in an organisation.

To be clear, I paint this scenario as neither a positive or a negative effect, just to highlight a reality of decision making in a network, especially where all the nodes can and do attempt to give a level of, if not consensus, then at least lend their 2p worth to the discussion.

Consider each member, given a say in a matter as being a node on the network, let us imagine to get an agreement between each node we need a connection, or a handshake. Just like the telephone network in Metcalfe’s Law, the number of handshakes is proportional to the number of members.

When you are just starting out with a hackerspace, the number of members can be low, maybe as few as one. With as few as 20 members we already have 190 notional handshakes to get our decisions made. A super sized hackerspace like Nottingham Hackspace that has around 600 members could have to reach about 179,700 handshakes (assuming they engage every member which admittedly is unlikely).

Why does this matter? What I am trying to illustrate with this example, is the importance of thrashing out what the hackerspace is for early, at the start of the adventure. As time goes by and as more members join the network, the hard it will become for them to agree on even the simplest thing.

Today’s thumbnail is a picture of the kitchen door at Nottingham Hackspace. http://nottinghack.org.uk/

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