Communal tuning

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Have you ever listened to live music and heard, prior to the show, the musicians tuning their instruments to one another? In symphonies, the oboe or piano plays a single note (it’s called “concert A”) multiple times for each section of the orchestra. Each section of the orchestra, such as the strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, then tune to the reference instrument. The goal is to get everyone’s instrument playing the same version of the “same” note, such as everyone playing the same A, Bb or C.

While performing, musicians continue to tune to each other in a variety of ways. Whenever I’m in a choir (tenor), I constantly tune myself to others. I adjust my pitch to get the right harmony; I adjust my vowels and consonants to facilitate a sense of a unified voice, I adjust the timbre of my voice to be brighter, darker, grounded in my head, nose or chest, to match others and our collective intent. When this is done well and everyone is working to tune to one another and collective intent, seemingly magical things can happen. For example, overtones occur, which is when notes that no one is singing, literally come into existence and are experienced by those who are listening. Of course, it’s technically not magic, it’s physics, but just because there’s nothing supernatural going on, doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge the magical feeling and sense of awe that nature can produce in us.

In an orchestra, there’s another key reference that exists: the conductor. The conductor’s job is, at a minimum, to set the tempo, meaning the pace of the music, such that everyone is playing to a standard rhythm. A good conductor not only sets the tempo, but also aligns the musicians to a common intention on the interpretation of the music. This involves aligning around things like how loud or quiet to play at a given moment, the adjustment of tone and timbre of music, or the way in which notes are expressed, such as staccato (short, tight, almost biting sounding notes) vs. legato (long notes that are nearly connected between each other). A good conductor uses the full repertoire of their musicians’ abilities to get everyone not only into the same tempo but, through it, the same intention, to produce the desired experience among the musicians and with the audience. Some of the most powerful emotional experiences in my life occurred while taking part in a choir, when I lost my sense of self into the uni-verse (yes, intentional use that word) of collective voices. I see these experiences as my own personal emotional experience of the US’s unofficial national credo, e pluribus unum (out of many, one) or, in Buddhist terms, a momentary experience of Nirvana.

I think of this magical act of musicians as communal tuning. This isn’t necessarily all that new of a concept as, for example, it is discussed in complex adaptive systems under the label “syncing”. I bring up this analogy as I think there are powerful parallels here to how communities, including patients working together to solve their own problems, find ways to achieve goals together.

Effective communities find ways to engage in communal tuning.

To abstract this out a bit, communal tuning involves identifying principle(s) as referent(s) and then a process of perpetual adjustment around the referents and one another. In music, the “principles” include the oboe/piano, to get everyone tuned to the same pitch, and the conductor, to get everyone in the same rhythm and aligning around a common intention. As symphonic music is, by definition, only possible when there is a “concerted” (notice connection to the name of a symphony performance, concert) effort, the community gets stronger the more each individual both brings their unique quality, value, and experiences AND tunes to each other and the collective pitch, rhythm, and intention. When it’s done well, “magic,” in the sense of something that produces a sense of awe and wonder, happens, as a community produces something that is literally greater than the sum of its parts.

Communal tuning, in my view, is on one of the key “secret sauce” ingredients of the OpenAPS community that other patient innovation communities might want to take special note of and try to emulate, whenever possible and appropriate.

As an outsider looking in at OpenAPS (which I state explicitly as I might be filling in gaps and “seeing” things aren’t really there), I see at least three key references that are used to “tune” the OpenAPS community: 1) effective management of blood glucose levels that maximizes time in range and minimizes burden on the person with type I diabetes (which, as Dana said, is greatly supported by continuous glucose monitor and the high degree to which type I diabetes is a quantitative illness); 2) safety, which OpenAPS is designed around; and 3) personal agency as manifest in the starting credo of #WeAreNotWaiting (because they can’t). Beyond this, the stories Dana tells me highlight a variety of ways that the community tunes to one another. Dana [and Scott, among others] play a role of [co-]conductor[s] and, as such, help to manifest these communal intentions into reality. They do this by translating the references into concrete, well-specified rules, such as the oref0 code, which manifests a structured approach for facilitating safety. They then also engage in a long series of tests, which I view as a form of communal tuning, to test out all of the features starting with a new idea written out in plain language and the community discussing the intended and unintended consequences. Next, the idea is written into code and, again, there is community checking/tuning to achieve the goals. Following this, Dana (or some other super-experienced OpenAPS’er) tries it on themselves in a highly controlled environment, often with someone (e.g., Scott) also monitoring for safety. Results are shared and further discussed. When everyone feels comfortable, a few more advanced users try it out, and so on and so on. The community continues to tune their collective understanding to facilitate progress defined via honoring the three references. Of course, enacting these principles can and should be informed by that which is known from the external evidence (i.e., the scientific insights from traditional scientists), clinical expertise, and self-knowledge of the community. The OpenAPS reference design clearly illustrates the integration and active monitoring of insights that can be cleaned from the scientific literature, clinical expertise, and self-knowledge as all part of the communal tuning.

Once I started thinking about this idea of communal tuning, I started seeing it everywhere, including one place that, I bet, many might be surprised to see it. Science. “Isn’t science trustworthy because it is objective, some might ask?” No. Science is trustworthy because it engages in a powerful form of communal tuning.

I invite you to watch Naomi Oreskes’s great TED talk on why we should trust science. To summarize some key points, Oreskes postulates that science is worthy of trust, not because of the scientific method (alone), but, also because of the special community of people and the rules they use (which includes the scientific method) to figure out what is “known.” Oreskes argues that the reason we can trust science is because it is a very special community of “geeks” who ground their discussions and beliefs in evidence coupled with communal dialogue and skepticism.
As I’ve thought about this, particularly thinking about it in relation to the communal tuning idea, I see at least five key principles that, when done well, establish the references needed within a community to produce insights that are worthy of trust: 1) grounding one’s beliefs in carefully conducted observations/evidence, including purely inductive observation (i.e., observation that lacks clearly stated hypotheses, as Darwin did) and deductive-inspired observation (i.e., observation directed towards testing a hypothesis); 2) carefully stated assumptions and hypotheses that are, ideally, expressed clearly enough to enable them to be falsifiable, and, thus, testable; 3) the “anything goes” principle, in that there is recognition that the scientific community is strengthened when a diversity of well-intentioned evidence, perspectives, and hypotheses are included; 4) active, perpetual scrutiny and skepticism of all that is stated in the scientific community, as a sanity check and a perpetual reminder to remain humble in what we “know”; and 5) the ultimate target of consensus, ideally achieved via specific type of consensus called consilience; meaning the consensus occurs, not from a single method or approach but, instead, when it is shown across a wide range of differing methods and approaches all pointing to a common belief.

While there are many stories in science that help to convey this, one of my personal favorites is that of Einstein and his Theory of General Relativity compared to Newton’s Fundamental Laws of Physics. I won’t be able to do it full justice in this post, but if you are interested, PBS’s NOVA had a great episode that tells the story very well. In brief, Einstein came up with an alternative explanation for what gravity is compared to Newton. The details aren’t important for the communal tuning idea so if you want to dig into them, again, watch the NOVA episode. The scientific community (i.e., the geeks from Oreskes’s talk) who could comprehend the differences have been engaging with and finding ways to test the predictions of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity ever since in comparison to predictions that would be made based on Newtonian Laws of Physics. One of the key experiments that occurred was to test a prediction Einstein’s theory made about light. In brief, according to Newton’s model, light should go straight. Period. In Einstein’s model, when light passes by objects of large mass, such as the sun, light should bend around it. Scientists discussed this and they came up with a way of testing this during a solar eclipse. Lo and behold, Einstein’s equations predicted what was observed in these special circumstances. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity has remained a part of scientific consensus, as part of humanity’s collective best guess for understanding gravity. It’s not because Einstein was a genius (though that helped). It was because the scientific community commits to communal tuning via (as best I can figure right now) the five references highlighted above. That which holds up best to scrutiny becomes the consensus, until some better explanation, such as movement from a Newtonian to an Einsteinian explanation, replaces it.

Scientific consensus is, thus, achieved via a powerful form of communal tuning. Not even such a genius as Newton and his explanation are safe from the power of scientific communal tuning.

How does a group get going with communal tuning?

I think the general structure for any community to engage in communal tuning involves these steps: 1) Identify key principles as references to advance a collective intention; 2) Develop the community and/or create a process for organizing the activities of members of the community to enable the principles to be translated into concrete solutions that solve the problems being targeted by the community; and 3) Build a process of communal checks and balances to constantly enable identification and testing of assumptions to achieve a robust feedback loop that enables the community to make progress.

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