I’ve been thinking a lot about stewardship as the requisite basis for action in an era of greed and confusion. Stewardship can be defined several ways, but the general sense I get is that it means taking responsibility for something that you don’t “own.” Ownership also needs definition for the sake of clarity, and as a Buddhist I’ve cultivated some depth around the concept of “I” or “self” and the concept of “own.” If the self is an illusion, then ownership is part of that illusion.

But we have to live in the world, and accept consensual hallucinations like the concept of “self.” I can also think of “I” as a bounded awareness, and stewardship as taking responsibility for something beyond that boundary.

The case that came up most recently for me was that of technology stewardship, which I just spent two weeks discussing on the WELL with Nancy White and John D. Smith, authors of Digital Habitats; stewarding technology for communities. We were talking about how people with a community of practice who have relative clue about technology take responsibility for assessing, selecting, and sustaining technology platforms for the community to use, primarily for communication and collaboration. Communities are complex, technology can be complex as well, so there’s much to be discussed in this context. Check out the discussion and the book if you’re interested, but I’m more interested in how the act of stewardship works, especially the attitude behind it.

While stewardship may or may not be through some role that is compensated, it should be inherently unselfish. To effectively take responsibility for something beyond yourself, you have to be prepared to put your “self” aside and think in terms of the best interests relevant to the stewardship role. In technology stewardship for a community, you’re selecting the technology that best serves the interests and capabilities of the community, not necessarily the technologies you would prefer or be most comfortable with.

We also talk about stewardship in the context of The Austin Equation, where I’m involved as a resource on community development, especially online. For that project, a group of volunteers have been defining and mapping scenes local to Austin, with the idea that they will take a stewardship role with the scenes they’ve selected, i.e. help build coherence and effectiveness into a community where the only glue, at the beginning, may be affinity and marginal awareness. How do you step into a community, in a role that the community itself didn’t define or originate, and provide effective stewardship? That’s an issue I keep considering – somehow you have to engage the community and convey the value of your stewardship.

These are some initial thoughts about stewardship; I’d like to have a larger conversation, especially about how to inspire an attitude of stewardship more broadly so that people are generally more focused on helping than “getting.”

Author: Jon Lebkowsky

Co-wrangler of Plutopia News Network, cohost Radio Free Plutopia. Podcaster, writer, dharma observer, enzyme. Former editor/publisher, FringeWare Review; associate editor at bOING bOING and Factsheet Five; writer at Mondo 2000, 21C, Wired, Whole Earth Review, Austin Chronicle; sub-editor at Millennium Whole Earth Catalog; blogger at Worldchanging. Digital culture maven, podcaster, writer, dharma observer, enzyme. On The WELL, Cohost of VC (virtual communities), Media, and Civil War (.ind) conferences.

3 thoughts on “Stewardship”

  1. We’re going to need information stewardship to make technology work. Standard tenet of information quality. Key fact: computers don’t make information accurate, people do. I theorize that the role of frontline information producer (who can have the responsibility for accuracy, timeliness, completeness, etc.) will become core to the new economy. Information quality depends on a lot of things, but chiefly a culture of information stewardship, which requires common understanding through shared metadata. You might find my presentation on enterprise-scale information stewardship via metadata for a health care context interesting:
    A lot of that is rooted in the work of Larry English.

  2. Jon,

    As a loving and devoted father of two, I beleive you just unknowingly described what it’s like being a parent. (I have no idea if you are, or are not, a parent).

    Stewardship – 2 : the conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially : the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care

    Reading the Merriam-Webster definition above is in many ways what I view as my role as a “Dad” – to provide an unselfish stewardship of two human beings that are learning, changing, adapting, and questioning at all times. This is a complicated endeavor that involves a wide range of complex interactions and a near constant dismissal of one’s “self” for the sake of the greater good.

    Very early on I understood and consequently gave up the idea that I could “tell” my children how to live. Certainly my guidance and, ahem, coaching emerge as words spoken softly, loudly, and at times in a way that resembles a screaming banshee. But in the end my *actions* and my *behavior* will demonstrate my true self and provide the guidance my children need.

    Ultimately one can only control one’s self. As my children grow and become adults, I’ll speak to them as adults (hopefully) and understand how my actions influenced their outcomes.

    Influence shares a similar defintion as stewardship. Both aptly describe being a Dad. You cannot “tell” a community how to be a community no more than you can “tell” a child how to be an adult. You can only live it, and thus demonstrate to others how to be the only thing you can be – your “self”.



  3. Seth, I agree about the critical role of information stewardship and/or curation, and I appreciate the pointer to your slides – looking now at the definition you have of information stewardship as “willingness to be accountable for a set of business information for the well-being of the larger organization, by operating in service of (rather than under control of) those around us. ” Noting the relationship to information quality and process improvement. “Common understanding” is hard to achieve – I’ve been thinking how communication is making your ideas real inside somebody else’s head. Orchestrating a common understanding in many heads can be difficult, given inherent internal variations.

    Jay: I agree about parenting, and I am a parent and grandparent. Also totally agree that you can’t tell a community how to be a community – and you can’t create it or own it, it’s more a mattter of nurturing.

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