Open Source Knowledge Building

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Thomas Homer-Dixon in an interview for the Worldchanging blog at, mentions 3 key processes in open source knowledge building, i.e. cumulation, winnowing, and hijacking.


Cumulation, the tendency for collective projects to generally improve in quality over time.

The second is winnowing, the processes in place that cut the signal to noise ratio, i.e. make sure that the best synthesis of knowledge drives to the top of the heap of accumulating material.

Hijacking. This means that when issues become sensitive, the politically motivated or experts can take over the discussion, and ‘hijack it’.


From Thomas Homer-Dixon at

"where Wikipedia seems to run into trouble, there’s the hijacking problem. Especially when you have morally fraught issues, or issues that have strong value conflicts or connotations for people - capital punishment, abortion, the nature of capitalism, some celebrities doing things that annoy people a lot. You get so many divergent interventions that you won’t come to a consensus in terms of the entry, and what they’ve had to do is implement a series of protocols for cooling off discussion or limiting the range of people who can intervene.

Hijacking tends to happen when issues are value-fraught, and a lot of the problems that I think we need to address within an open-source democratic framework will be value-fraught, and so they’re going to be vulnerable to hijacking by small groups of highly motivated and not terribly tolerant people who are fixated on one idea, one solution, or one enemy.

When it’s possible to replicate your voice easily with the push of a button, hijacking becomes much more of a problem than it does in a personal conversation or a room. It’s like somebody in a town hall meeting getting hold of the microphone, and nobody can take it away. So in terms of the institutional design, there needs to be a capacity to legitimately reduce the risk of hijacking, and sideline people who aren’t prepared to engage in a cumulative winnowed conversation over time about a particular problem.

I think this is a very important institutional requirement for an open-source democratic decision-making system for dealing with complex social problems. Another is the relationship between lay people and experts. Some of the most difficult problems we’re facing - climate change, energy - are technical problems that are enormously complex, and it’s very easy for experts to just take over the discussion." (