The changing relationships between producers and consumers

XV.4 July + August 2008
Page: 26
Digital Citation

FEATUREKnowledge architecture that facilitates trust and collaboration

Xanthe Matychak

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With every new technology comes fascinating discussions about how technology shapes human relationships. Socrates took issue with one of the basic building blocks of all technology—written language—because he felt it negatively affected public perception of truth. Victor Hugo [1] wrote extensively about how Gutenberg's printing press shifted the ownership of knowledge from the powerful few, whose repository for power was stone architecture (think hieroglyphs in the pyramids or frescos in the Sistine Chapel), to those who could read and write (think Martin Luther's 95 theses). More recently, there have been similar discussions around the invention of the photograph, the moving picture, and radio and television broadcast.

The technology that is creating the revolution in communication today has been deemed Web 2.0; it focuses on user-generated content. Some critics of this technology fear that sites such as Wikipedia represent the end of truth as we know it, arguing that if anyone can contribute content, then we've lost the traditional measures of truth. Supporters of Wikipedia are excited about the end of truth as we know it—why were we relying on elitist knowledge purveyors to begin with?

How knowledge is constructed and by whom has a direct impact on how we understand the world. Despite Hugo's claims about the democratizing effects of the printed page, we are still bound by architecture. Books have architecture. This magazine has an architecture. And even though the architecture of the Web is more malleable than that of brick and mortar or the printed page, it's still there, and it is shaping the way we communicate and relate to one another.

As someone who teaches industrial design and conducts sustainability research, I am concerned with how technology and architecture affect the quality of human relationships, specifically producer/consumer relationships. These relationships are apparently failing. Thousands of online organizations have sprung up that are centered around the social, environmental, and economic problems caused by our current models of production and consumption [2]. These models were, and still are, literally created by an elite few in architectures of glass and steel, that is, in office buildings, and they have been advantageous for big business precisely because big business can afford those buildings. These models have been self-serving, creating their own barriers to entry to smaller businesses and consumers who want to participate in market activity.

The flexible architecture and wide distribution of the Web remove that barrier. If you have a mobile phone or access to a public computer, you are well on your way to entering the market. But something is still missing in this new architecture: Producers and consumers need a system to foster trust and collaboration, which are essential to business success. We need lots of creativity in order to rethink the architectures that shape human relationships.

In this article I will refer to constructions of knowledge as knowledge architecture and will argue that an architecture that facilitates collaboration among large groups will yield profound social and economic benefits for millions of people who were previously locked out of markets. I will briefly examine creative approaches to rethinking the architecture of an office building, as an office building is not just a space to work, but also a place where producer/consumer relationships are formed. Then I will examine the architecture and features of some websites and social network tools that promote a sense of self, a sense of place, and a sense of accomplishment. These features, I argue, are essential components of online architectures that foster trust and promote collaboration between producers and consumers around the globe.

back to top  Rethinking the Office Building

There are three approaches to creativity [3] that can be used to identify architectures that improve producer/consumer relationships:

  1. Making unfamiliar combinations
  2. Exploring conceptual spaces
  3. Transforming the space

In taking the first approach—making unfamiliar combinations—and applying it to the traditional architecture in which producers reside, a natural starting point is the standard office building. In that architectural setting, we may encounter problems like poor air quality, artificial light, and isolating cubicles. In making an unfamiliar combination for solving these problems, we might end up with a question like that proposed by green architect Bill McDonnough: "How do we make an office building that is like a tree?" As a "tree," an office building would generate no waste, would run on solar power, and would clean the air; there would be many windows to let natural light and air in to common spaces where workers (producers) could gather. However, does this new architecture do anything to improve producer/consumer relationships? Just like the cathedrals that Hugo criticized, this architecture creates a physical barrier between those who produce knowledge and those who consume it. Green as McDonnough's buildings may be, the consumers are still locked out of the building.

If we take the second approach, exploring conceptual spaces, we begin to look at other spaces in which people gather. Maybe an office building should be more like a museum, a theater, a park, or a cafe. We generate this list of spaces where people gather to find architectural features in other spatial arrangements for building trust and collaboration; a cafe, with free Wi-Fi, can provide this space.

According to scholars who study how the mass distribution of the Internet affects global markets [4, 5], producers and consumers with access to the Internet in Wi-Fi cafes and other places have all of the architecture they need to collaborate with one another. While some were sitting in cubicles, millions of others around the globe gained access to the Internet and achieved an unprecedented level of collaboration. New markets have come into being with as little hardware as a mobile phone. In the next 10 years, hundreds of millions more will gain access to the Web, and it is very likely they will collaborate as well.

The massive impact of a virtual community of that size brings us to the third approach to creativity—transforming the space—and questions such as the following: "What is it that people do in office buildings; do we even need a physical space to achieve those goals?" With every passing day the answer looks more and more like "no." We don't need a physical space to collaborate. But do we already have the architecture we need to foster trust and collaboration online? Though some are able to do it, I don't think we're all there yet. What we have on the Web now are a bunch of sketches and experiments on how to collaborate. And even though millions of us have nearly free access to global communication technologies, this technology leaves out a key ingredient workers have when they are meeting in person: architecture for sharing tacit knowledge.

back to top  Tacit Knowledge and the Web

Tacit knowledge is the knowledge communicated independently of words; it is the information we disseminate and gain by way of body language, facial expressions, subtle joking, and any other form of nonverbal gesturing. This form of communication is essential to gaining trust within a group, and trust is necessary for successful collaboration. But sharing tacit knowledge in an office building, as stated earlier, is costly. We need to recreate or reinvent an architecture that facilitates trust and collaboration in the virtual realm.

Any new communication architecture that is designed to build trust and collaboration among online groups must consider three aspects of our lives:

  1. A sense of self
  2. A sense of place
  3. A sense of accomplishment

back to top  Sense of Self

In order to commit to a project, each individual needs to establish a sense of self within a community. One website that fosters a sense of self and celebrates the individual in a community is Facebook (see illustration). There is a lot of discussion today about what, if anything, the users of Facebook are accomplishing. Critics say that the site merely facilitates gossip, but supporters see something more. Social media activist and scholar danah boyd identifies three primary features of Facebook:

  1. The profile
  2. The friends
  3. The wall

The architecture of this site promotes individuals within groups. The image of the individual is dominant on the profile page, with pictures and messages from friends subordinate, serving mostly to define the individual. An individual can join a group that stands for a social or political cause, but the "cause" icons are minuscule in comparison with the image of the individual. Additionally, Facebook is a social network site, not a social networking site: Facebook users generally network with people they already know [6]. While this architecture does help to improve human relationships that already exist by establishing a sense of self, it is not constructed in a way that prioritizes community building on a global scale.

back to top  Sense of Place

Because online groups do not have physical gathering places, a sense of place may be an important thing to establish. Patagonia's Footprint Chronicles (see illustration) is not a social-network or -networking site, but the architecture is worth examining. Patagonia is a company that has always been committed to sustainability. Its Footprint Chronicles project is an attempt to make that commitment more visible to its consumers. What is striking about the architecture of this site is that Patagonia has arranged some life-cycle-assessment data (raw materials, manufacture, assembly, distribution) geospatially. Facebook has a geospatial application called "Where I've Been," but like the social-causes applications mentioned earlier, it exists on the periphery. On the Patagonia site, the geospatial architecture is central. Click on a wool crew shirt and we are taken to a sheep farm in New Zealand. Flip through a slide show there and we travel to a textile mill in Japan, where another slide show awaits. In some instances, we even get to watch a video.

But what keeps this site from being a social networking site is that the communication is one way. We never actually get to speak to the sheep farmer or the textile worker. So the architecture here is conflicted. The slideshows and videos presented are one-way communications "written" by Patagonia. Nonetheless, through the geospatial arrangement of data and narrative, we begin to understand that it takes a global community to bring us our products. But if Patagonia were to replace the video of the sheep farmer with something like a Facebook profile, it would have a pretty impressive networking tool, one truly devoted to improving human relationships on a grand scale.

back to top  Sense of Accomplishment

A third feature that is important in facilitating trust and collaboration among online groups is one that establishes for the users a sense of collective accomplishment. The architecture of the Nike+ social networking site (see illustration) is focused around an activity—running—and requires the users to own and use two common products: Nike+ shoes and an iPod. While the individual is running, the shoes generate data that communicates with the iPod, which in turn communicates with the user about her run. When the user gets home, she docks the iPod, which uploads data to a Nike+ social networking site. The data is the reward; rather than being monetary, that reward is an ever-growing picture of how many miles she has run, and she can compare her data with that of other runners around the world. The animation of the data allows members of the Nike+ community to see the benefits of their combined efforts grow in real time. And, of course, the site also happens to market shoes for Nike.

This animated data feature shows up in noncommercial applications as well. Kluster, a social networking tool that debuted at the TED conference this past winter, is organized not around celebrating individuals or communities but around accomplishing tasks. The knowledge architecture of Kluster motivates diverse groups of people to gather around projects by providing features such as Facebookish profiles, animated data, and project management tools.

back to top  Putting It Together

If the features above were infused into an existing online network, that network would be far more efficient than our current models in facilitating trust and collaboration among dispersed groups of producers and consumers. Worldstock is an online market that is attached to the well-known e-commerce site It was created to fight poverty in the poorest regions of the world by connecting global artisans with global consumers in a virtual marketplace. But the "shopping-centered" architecture at Worldstock is not that much different from e-commerce sites that carry mega-brands. Of course, the shopping-centered model makes some sense—ultimately, we do want to put consumer dollars into the pockets of global artisans. But with a heightened architecture, the entire experience could be much richer on a social, environmental, and economic level.

If Worldstock producers and consumers had something similar to Facebook profiles, they could share their identities with one another and establish synchronous communication and friendships. Through our profiles we can share tacit knowledge with images, stories, videos, and music to identify the things we have in common and to share the cultural experiences that make us unique. This architectural feature would enable Worldstock consumers to understand the people behind the products, and it would allow producers to understand the interests of their consumer base. As mentioned in the beginning of this essay, Socrates was wary of the effect of written language on public perception of truth. Socrates wanted us to be able to know the source of knowledge, and he felt that that awareness was best achieved with face-to-face dialogue. In a global market, that face-to-face contact is too costly to engage in. However, Facebook-to-Facebook interaction is proving to be an affordable and effective strategy toward establishing trust among geographically dispersed people.

There is some debate on whether or not the lack of geography on the Web is good. On the one hand, a globally distributed site without a sense of geography may be viewed as a medium for democratizing an unlevel playing field. Victor Hugo, in his enthusiastic description of the printed page, celebrated the fact that human thought was no longer earth-bound and likened the mass production and distribution of ideas that Gutenberg's press allowed to the power of a flock of birds. Very poetic. But I think there are advantages to "grounding" online collaborative places with geospatial architectures. To follow through with the Worldstock example, producers and consumers could benefit from knowledge architectures that map how their connections enable social, environmental, and economic benefits on a global scale. It's one thing for me to buy a rug from India and hang it on my wall, such that when a friend comes over I can say, "yeah, that's from India." But if there were geospatial architecture integrated with my purchasing experience, then I could link my spending to the economic benefits of underdeveloped economies. If there were life-cycle data available, as there is on Patagonia's Footprint Chronicles, I could learn and show my friend what natural resources went into creating this product. I hope we would choose products that were sourced responsibly. And through artisan profiles mapped out on a geospatial architecture, we could understand how the choices that we make when we produce and consume stuff affect people, the environment, and economies. The geospatial architecture places our social, environmental, and economic activity into a morally tangible context.

However, all of these added features are starting to feel like information overload. That's why we need a feature that helps us to synthesize this new knowledge. Once we've established trust with a global network of producer and consumer friends, it's important that we put our connections to good work. Yet, unlike the hierarchical organization flow that we have in the office building, where the CEO decides what is good work, independent global networks can write their own definitions of progress and organize the work among self-organizing, collaborative groups. Maybe the Indian textile artisan and her cousin want to hire a few more women to help them expand their business. These new workers are young women who might otherwise be pressured to enter the sex trade. We don't want that. So we create a work plan with achievable goals to work toward solving these problems collaboratively. In this networked community where we've established trust and collaborative relationships through individual profiles and geospatial architecture, and an additional element of a sense of accomplishment, our collaborative, goal-centered interactions are more sustainable and, I argue, more satisfying than the consumer/producer interactions we have at present.

back to top  References

1. Hugo, Victor. "This Will Kill That." In The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Ballantine Books, 2004.

2. Hawken, Paul. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming. New York: Viking Press, 2007.

3. Boden, Margaret A. The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2004.

4. Friedman, Thomas L. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. 3d ed. New York: Picador, 2007.

5. Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

6. danah boyd and Nicole Ellison. "Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship." Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13, no. 1 (October 2007).

back to top  Author

Xanthe Matychak teaches industrial design and conducts sustainability and information technology research at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She is also a contributing writer to the online industrial-design publication Core 77. Xanthe's primary research focuses on how social network tools can promote micro-entrepreneurship for people living in disadvantaged urban communities. Other research interests include sustainability and narrative, the aesthetics of sustainability, and pedagogies for facilitating multidisciplinary collaboration. She received her M.F.A. in industrial design from RIT and her B.A. in music from Ithaca College.

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Here the sense of self, sense of place, and sense of accomplishment are reimagined looks at online architecture, which facilitate trust and collaboration.

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