OuiShare: a modern cult

Always hopeful for something – some event, something – to add to the gaiety of life in this interval consisting of things that do not add to the gaiety: Trump, Brexit, unaffordable housing. Nothing for ages and then, all of a sudden: OuiShare. Two OuiShare ‘connectors’ visited my workplace earlier this week, to ‘facilitate’ with us (I had not invited them; somebody else had). What is OuiShare? Well, you may remember that in Season 5 of Mad Men, Paul joins Hare Krishna, and no one sees it coming:

Cults of the 1960s piggybacked on popular novelties of their era: trips to India, sex, alternatives routes to transcendence. The passage of time has left Krishna followers looking perhaps a bit more distinctive than they’d ideally like, but look at what the Beatles were wearing back in the day:

At root, cults have an offer, and the offer is always warm, inviting, positive. Who could not want? A modern cult of the 2010s will naturally ally itself with modern positivity: technology, sustainability, the sharing economy, entrepreneurship, diversity, companies without hierarchies, a world without borders, a better politics. Enter OuiShare, with its heart-shaped logo:

“OuiShare connects people and accelerates projects for systemic change. We experiment with social models based on collaboration, openness, and fairness. Our mission is to build and nurture a collaborative society by connecting people, organizations and ideas around fairness, openness and trust.”

You think, yes, all good, now can you be more specific? How do you ‘experiment with social models’? Is it with software or something else? Who do you experiment on? Do you have examples, case studies, peer-reviewed papers? Is there ethical oversight? Are you partnered, perhaps, with any universities? And this is where the cultishness starts to shine through. There aren’t any case studies or journal papers, there are no higher education affiliations, there is no ethical oversight; there are only vague ‘our values’ statements, the Ouishare ‘magazine’, uninformative think pieces on Medium, links to TED talks (by others), pictures of young happy people being sociable. You enter this reflecting chamber for a while only to stumble out a while later having grasped nothing. It becomes a relief to turn to your favourite news site and see simple reports; facts and events. Brexit. Trump.

Cults have hierarchies; circles of involvement. They have novices, initiates, and somewhere at the centre, a founder and his or her close circle. OuiShare has this feature. ‘Friends’ are people who might give them a mention. ‘Members’ have signed up, but only minimally; they have given personal details and possibly a small monetary contribution. ‘Connectors’ are fully involved; these are OuiShare’s foot soldiers who carry recruiting, event organising and fundraising obligations in addition to whatever business consultancy services they manage to sell; as far as I can tell, they are treated as independent freelancers even though – and perplexingly – invoicing is handled centrally. Many of their activities are scripted. You become a Connector when you satisfy a recondite ‘333 rule’. ’Core Connectors’ run the organisation, although OuiShare – note – is a flat ‘emergent organisation’ with no hierarchy. Or is it? There is some doubt as to whether the Core Connector role exists.

Cults also feature obscure terminology and revealed concepts. This, for me, is where OuiShare is at its most fascinating and entertaining. Trendy and more or less meaningful language – ‘OuiShare is in permanent beta’ – is juxtaposed with a word you’d likely have to look up: ‘stigmergy’. Some terms appear unique; for instance: ‘lazy consent’ (a moderately sinister voting system bespoke to OuiShare). During their visit, our Connectors had us engage in an obscure ‘1-2-4-All’ process: first you think of an idea on your own – perhaps ‘something you feel is holding back the company’ – then you find a partner colleague to compare notes; then the two of you merge with another pair to make a four and agree an idea to promote; finally, the whole group comes together to discuss the ideas that made it through. (Is this really as democratic as it might at first seem? Who cares, it has a nice numeric mnemonic and we’re on a schedule; let’s go to the next activity, everyone.) Taken as a whole, the mix of terminology – from familiar to never before heard – does useful psychological work. Your interest – ‘I’ve heard of that; it sounds exciting but I’m not sure I fully understand it’ – presents itself for exploitation. As it happens, here are some friendly explainers to help. ‘Well, it means …’ And so on into the mysteries of the organisation.

Where the French-originated OuiShare stresses technology and collaboration, the US-based Ashoka Changemakers stress social entrepreneurship and the environment. The offer is, well, change:

“We analyze the current landscape of a problem by defining the core problems, and mapping them against patterns and trends emerging from the work of leading social entrepreneurs. We take this information from the frontier of knowledge and assemble it, producing a Discovery Framework that serves as a mosaic of strategic opportunities for moving the needle on systems change. We support this with a communications strategy that includes calls-to-action and compelling visuals, deployed through traditional and social media, to activate large-scale changemaking.”

Although less obviously cult-like than OuiShare – there is arguably such a thing as beneficial ‘social entrepreneurship’ – the Ashoka Changemakers nonetheless reveal a model of endless recruitment and expansion. If they disburse stipends to social entrepreneurs, at the same time there is also a price list. For $7,500 they will visit your university campus and conduct a ’360 degree campus scan’:

“… an empowering experience and structured process to assess the changemaking ecosystem at your institution, catalyze deeper commitment among your allies, generate new insights and ideas about what could work at your institution, and get feedback, recommendations, and comparative institutional case studies from Ashoka U.”

Three further steps (with associated costs) will bring your campus to the stage where it can be honoured as a ‘Changemaker Campus’. Perhaps all campuses will one day be Changemaker campuses?

If there is one defining characteristic of a cult, it may be an economic one: a cult expands faster than its payroll. It must do so, or face hard economic limits to its influence. Given that cults do indeed exist – and do expand, or try to – we can ask: what does it cost us? Perhaps an organisation that seems cult-like – such as the Ashoka Changemakers – may on balance be benign. Others, such as OuiShare, may threaten little more than time wasting or make-work for their followers. Not all cults are destructive and not everyone will be asked to drink the Kool-aid.

I’ve yet to witness OuiShare’s second visit to our firm. If they do come – perhaps once more with their anonymous photographer in tow – I look forward to what will be revealed. The thought brightens my day quite a bit, actually.

Bunkers of the DDR

British urban-exploration geeks report on their tour of a wealth of cold-war and Nazi bunkers in the former East Germany back in 2003. Thrilling and uncomfortable stuff—they were the first to revisit the ultimate DDR fortress, the bunker that was built as an alternate seat of government for Erich Honecker and the rest of the Zentralkomitee. That is merely tankerpunk, of course, but I thought this was very cool indeed..

After many hours beneath the surface, we emerged from the gloom and after thanking our guide, headed off to the next site, nearly 150 miles away, the former East German PTT (Post Office Telecom, basically) satellite uplink station ‘Intersputnik’ at Neu Golm to the south east of Berlin.

The site came into service 1976 as the first (and only) ground satellite station in the GDR. Then part of the integrated international telecommunications network, ‘Intersputnik’, (which has nothing to do with the Sputnik remote transmitter sites mentioned elsewhere in this report) was one of 15 INTERSPUTNIK sites which were in service in 13 countries. These sites used to transmit telephone, fax, TV and data signals. In the Former Times, this site‘s services were also used by the then West German PTT services for satellite links to the Soviet Union, i.e. it was a non-military complex. Later, it used the Soviet satellites Stationar 4 and 5 in geostationary orbit 36,000 km over the equator, but initially used the four Soviet Molniya satellites, which were in a non-stationary orbit, i.e. the dish had to be oriented towards each of the four in turn as they came into view for a 6-hour “period of duty”. The dish could rotate through 360° and was so finely balanced that a 250 W drive is sufficient to rotate it. However, the entire site is now a conference centre, even if the redundant original dish (12 m in diameter and weighing, with its base, 60 tonnes) is still on the roof.

Note especially that Deutsche Telekom shared the installation with the East Germans and the Russians, a fine example of what used to be called the DDR’s secret membership in the EEC, and the difficult moral position the West Germans were regularly pressed into – between doing things that would improve life in the East (but perhaps reinforce the regime) and the desire to put pressure on the DDR leadership.

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Killer Workout

Do gyms breed terrorists?

The three cells appear to have had at least one thing in common, though—their members’ immersion in gym culture. Often, they met and bonded over a workout. If you’ll forgive the pun, they were fitness fanatics. Is there something about today’s preening and narcissistic gym culture that either nurtures terrorists or massages their self-delusions and desires? Mosques, even radical ones, emphasize Muslims’ relationships with others—whether it be God, the ummah (Islamic world), or the local community. The gym, on the other hand, allows individuals to focus myopically on themselves.