A “shared awareness system” is something like a newspaper that makes different people aware of a common base of events.

“One cannot unite a community without a newspaper or journal of some kind.” – Gandhi [1]

This is an interesting component which is probably common to many distributed information processing systems.

A really good shared awareness system may allow information to be routed very effectively between different subsystems. For instance, the brain probably has a very good shared awareness system.

In the brain, so-called “split brain” studies have shown that it’s possible to partially disconnect processing in the two hemispheres to such an extent that one hemisphere will not know what the other one is doing. What is amazing is, first, that people with this condition are able in most circumstances operate as a single, unitary mind 1, and second, that in normal people these hemispheres which seems to have the capability to be partially autonomous, are able to coordinate their perception so much that it becomes a unitary consciousness.

By comparison, humanity as a whole seems to have a rather bad shared awareness system. Whereas a human whose foot is subjected to slightly cold water and whose hand is being burned will immediately focus their efforts on helping the hand, human institutions such as governments have trouble focusing their energies on the most pressing problems.

"Awareness about what other units are doing" vs. "joint awareness of data"

The term “shared awareness system” is pretty vague. To start with, we could subdivide it into “awareness about what other units are doing” (this is self-awareness in the brain, and cross-departmental or interpersonal awareness in an organization), and on the other hand “joint awareness of data” (the brain being aware that one’s hand is burning, or an organization being aware of some problem that it must face).

Awareness vs. attention

In addition, there may be an opposition between the general term “awareness”, but also the more specific term “attention”. Attention more specifically connotes the allocation of a limited resource, what is in the “foreground” of the collective consciousness, whereas “awareness” might also encompass knowledge-management.

For example, one might distinguish between WikiPedia, which is a good way for information to spread from one person to another, with SlashDot, which in addition to organizing information serves the purpose of synchronizing the focus of many people.

What works well where

Wikis seem especially good at facilitating “joint awareness of data”, as well as an “awareness about what other units are doing”. However, the current system of RecentChanges cannot perform the latter task under high traffic. Ironically, although RecentChanges is the very embodiment of shared attention, it ceases fulfill this function well as traffic gets high, even though RecentChanges is still necessary and useful for other reasons.

So, while low-traffic wikis in addition focus multiple people’s attention onto each other and onto joint conversation, in high traffic wikis one tends to be confused as to “what is going on”, i.e. the wiki does not have an attention system to allow you everyone to have a unified percept of “what other units are doing”. (note that, however, it does in a sense still promote “awareness of what other units are doing”, as you can visit other’s homepages, and find other people with similar interests to you through stigmergy).

Even with high traffic, however, wikis are good for knowledge-management, which might fall under “joint awareness of data” (for example, WikiPedia promotes a joint awareness of data).

Newspapers and large WebLogs, by contrast, as great at helping to allocate attention, but perhaps not as great at routing data which the community is not currently focused on.

I’m not sure what to say about small weblogs, because I haven’t had enough experience with them. Clearly they would improve the “shared awareness of what other units are doing”. I am not sure how they would perform in the other tasks, though (are they good at allocating shared attention? are they good at building a shared percept of data?)


Bayle, you wrote that roughly 3 years ago, …

Here’s what Johnson-Lenz wrote in the CollectiveIntelligenceBook:

However, while large and open wikis and comprehensive directories provide increasing opportunities to network and connect, it’s hard to see the Whole. (Points of greatest influence, Peter+Trudy Johnson-Lenz)

I think that data aggregation & visualization technologies for SeeingTheWhole are going to be one of the major leaps in HiveMind and SemanticWeb technologies.

The above text is PrimarilyPublicDomain.

See also ParableOfTheBook.

See also: The Transitioner: Holopticism

PublicWebJune2004Map CategoryInformationManagement


I have much I want to add to this, in the future, but just a note to let you know that I’ve read this, and I like it.

I think the reason our institutions are poor at addressing major problems is because the institutions work in such a way that your attention is strictly managed. (ManagedAwarenessSystem??) You are told what to work on, and told that anything that might seem important, is actually under the care and management of someone else. (Your job is to do your job.) Contrast with another type of institution, where you do primarily what you are interested in, and connect with others who are interested as well. If something seems important to a number of people, they weigh off (sort of like responding to price signals) whether what they are doing is important enough or not, that they should drop it and respond to the immediate problem.

I do not know the literature, but I hear that there have been theories and evidence that guerilla groups are more efficient than top-down militaries.

However, the guerilla groups still need SharedAwarenessSystems?, so that they can coordinate.

If they cannot coordinate, then they will reproduce a lot of the same efforts, or not be able to help each other toward shared ends, etc., etc.,. They just become a giant blob of people, and are terribly weak.

Hm… There’s a better way of experessing this, particularly in the context of this page.


This strikes a chord in me. I’m always looking for ways to explain the difference in motivation and efficiency of my programming for money, and my programming for free. The difference is staggering. I’d like to learn how to create an environment that allows me to channel as much time, energy, joy, and creativity into programming for money as I am spending on programming for free. I’ve heard it say that Free Software was only made possible by the ubiquitous Internet. Only mailing lists and newsgroups (at the time) allowed free software authors to cooperate and coordinate. The Internet acted as a SharedAwarenessSystem?

(tangent on programming for money) Hmm.. perhaps a flattened power structure is the goal. And the flexibility to switch projects. Perhaps if individual programmers were more often freelancers, as opposed to tied to a specific set of projects?

What is preventing that from happening? (is anything keeping it? Lion’s a freelancer, right?) 1) Risk, and 2) the “friction” costs of freelancing. (1) could eventually be dealt with by commoditized financial derivatives designed to smooth earnings (a form of “job insurance”). (2) could be helped by more organizations/corporations devoted to taking care of things like matching programmers up with jobs, and doing billing, helping with legal issues, etc (like; but they closed). (SoftwareBazaar)


Oh, no way. I’ve done tiny odd computer jobs for people, but I’m by no means a contract programmer. No, I do games testing on contract. (And, no. I’m not allowed to tell who I test games for.)

I programmed professionally for 4.5 years, but, that ended about 4 years ago. Different world, now.

But- that’s not why I’m here at this moment. I wanted to add something to SharedAwarenessSystem.





This is a picture of a place where they seem to take "SharedAwarenessSystem" pretty seriously.

I want to eventually draw comparison to, say, a busy scoop site, such as KuroShin. Much smaller scale, but- there are many similarities.

This conversation on motivations is different than the discussion on SharedAwarenessSystem. There is overlap at the edges, because we can draw association lines all over the place. But, I’m actually talking about SharedAwarenessSystem. It strikes me that, even in the corporate sectors, there are places where there are SharedAwarenessSystems? because there have to be SharedAwarenessSystems?. Perhaps live NOCs are one of them.

My long term goal is to put this chink in the puzzle into place, for helping us organize the FreeSoftware / OpenSource / ThePublicWeb HiveMind. I strongly suspect that SharedAwarenessSystem is an essential element of building our organization.

What we need to do is figure the idea out- is it good or not, if it’s good: why- and then add our findings to our understanding of WhatCommunicationSoftwareToUse, and use it to help educate and organize our efforts.

Very cool photograph, Kimbro.

Lion, I’m interested in that Scoop site. Or a Drupal site – I don’t know the details of either one. I think it would be interesting to put one up (or two, if we want to compare software :) ) to see how it feels as a SharedAwarenessSystem for public communications projects, even if there wouldn’t be much traffic. You could even give everyone near-total admin privilages.

However, on second thought, isn’t already exactly this? It describes itself as

“an active community of web enthusiasts that exchange ideas and experiences about the latest developments in web technology. It is where developers, designers, strategists and content managers meet to discuss and talk about community design, web services, knowledge management, P2P, information architecture, content syndication, online journalism, content management, online collaboration, weblog software, and much, much more. Hide your daughters for we talk meta, plumb communities and eat with our hands.”

Maybe we just frequent… I haven’t visited it much, but I’ll start checking it out.

Oh wow; I’d never seen Drop..! It seems kinda’ low tech, compared to Scoop. There’s not nearly as much information on a given page, and it doesn’t support any form of structured text, but hey. They’re domain is exactly the one we’re aiming for, and, they’re working on improving their code base.

I think it’s at least worth giving them a try.

I’ll write an introduction over there, and point to the Public Internet Communications wiki.

Eh. Not much going on there. More later.

Today (jan ‘05), is down. I agree, not much was going on there. So, Lion, are you still interested in putting up a Scoop/Drupal/etc site for public communications projects?

Btw, I think the people would be amenable to someone taking over its management (provided it was still Drupal, I assume). When I asked for some feature by email, they asked me if i wanted to. I said thanks, but I didn’t have time.

I don’t think so; The idea of being nailed to Drupal…

At the same time, it’s a great community for what I’m interested in implementing. But I don’t want to stop at the borders of that community.

How about starting a new site then, like you were thinking of initially?

That idea has sort of folded into ProamInternetCommunicationsAlliance in my mind.

My thinking is that a few rounds of PICA, and we’d have a website.

Incidentally, I was thinking about the protocols wiki that you were talking about a while back- I still think it’s a great idea, and something that has to happen.

I’m thinking:

  • PICA (rules set)
  • PICA documents (such as PICA-1, the HTTP Pipe)
  • PICA bulletin board & wiki
  • protocols wiki (“further afield” – not necessarily tied to PICA)

It’s possible that PICA wiki and the protocols wiki are one and the same. In fact, they could just be IntComm. Or IntComm’s child.

I’m also thinking about just biting the bullet, laerning some Perl, and using OddMuse as the wiki. I mean, it just makes too much sense. It features namespaces.

(see also my post on the page ProamInternetCommunicationsAlliance for most of my reply)

I’m also thinking about just biting the bullet, laerning some Perl, and using OddMuse as the wiki. I mean, it just makes too much sense. It features namespaces.

Well, that’s what I chose. I think Python is superior to Perl and so I’d love to be able to use a Python wiki. But I think OddMuse is the better wiki.

Someday we should really rewrite OddMuse in Python. But of course, it’s not that simple. Someone would have to maintain it. Anyway, it would soon suck again in comparison to OddMuse because Alex would continue to add awesome new ideas to OddMuse.

So, our mission, should we choose the accept it, is really this: convert AlexSchroeder :)

Actually, if we did rewrite OddMuse in Python, and if we could make it more elegant than the Perl version, that might serve as a good conversion argument for Alex. Because clearly there is no way we, who have no experience with this code (and, I think, less experience with elegant coding in general), could make it more elegant than Alex himself, without an unfair advantage. So if we did, that would prove that Python grants an unfair advantage.

It’s possible that PICA wiki and the protocols wiki are one and the same. In fact, they could just be IntComm. Or IntComm’s child.

I see a distinction (child of, yes; same as, no). In my vision of the protocols wiki, there is one entry for each named protocol/standard effort. There are also a few category pages and other general pages. There is a little bit of discussion, and from time to time there is even a new project idea. But what there is not are many pages with brainstorms and discussions and actual hammering out of new ideas and standards. The protocols wiki is purely an index to other projects. The actual work is done elsewhere.

It’s like, but for standards of any sort, not just RDF schemas. And because what it is indexing is more open-ended than schemas, it has wiki text instead of a database entry.


I am seeing a structure like WikiFeatures, but dedicated to protocols.

I also see it running MoinMoin 1.3 with anti-spam features…

Yeah, exactly, just like WikiFeatures!

I’m fine with whatever software choice you like.

I heard rumors that at some Electric Power generating stations, architects(?) have ripped out all the commodity PC controllers and gone back to walls full of huge switches, dials, blinking lights, etc.

Even though one person could control the entire station sitting in front of a little PC, the physical action of Fred walking over a wall and throwing a huge switch or turning a large dial helps in 3 ways:

  • Fred understands that this huge switch has a major effect on how the station operates. That makes it less likely that Fred will randomly turn off power to a few neighborhoods “just to see what will happen”.
  • Experienced people have a few seconds of warning as they see Fred walk over and reach towards the switch. Then they can say “Hold up a second, Fred!” rather than “Dial 911 !”.
  • Less experienced people can get a feel of who does what, and the proper procedure for running the station. After watching each other for a year, they’ve all cross-trained, improving Wiki:TruckNumber. If Fred doesn’t show up for work, they won’t panic.


In other words, they can see what other people are doing, and think “I can do that”.

Rather than see people hunched over a computer screen typing like mad, and thinking “I have no idea what he is doing” and having the nagging feeling that it’s something critical to the operations, that no one else knows how to do, so that the entire system would collapse if that one person ever retired.

So, is “shared awareness” the same thing as what Isaac Jones 2006 in "Three Wiki Uses" calls “situation awareness” ? Or is his “situation awareness” something more like InformationKnowledgeAndWisdom?

I personally wouldn’t dissect these concepts that far, but it’s an interesting story and clearly related. How close is his concept of “shared awareness” tied to the news? How proximate is this page itself to the concept of news?

Contextualizing seems to be part of the InformationKnowledgeAndWisdom progression.

Perhaps we should revisit this page? My attention has shifted to SeeingTheWhole.



1. Note that the two hemispheres are only partially disconnected; connectivity remains beneath the level of the cerebral cortex. But, it’s still amazing that people could be disconnected enough to not be able to share certain kinds of information in certain experimental tasks, and yet be connected enough to act normally the rest of the time.

Define external redirect: SharedAwarenessSystems ManagedAwarenessSystem

EditNearLinks: OddMuse MoinMoin ParableOfTheBook FreeSoftware OpenSource PrimarilyPublicDomain KuroShin SlashDot WebLogs IntComm