Mirror Institutions

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

There are millions of organizations and other institutions that are responsible for important decisions and policy development on behalf of the public trust. There are also organizations and other institutions that violate the public trust or who otherwise wield illegitimate power. Unfortunately these two types often overlap. Some wield enormous power while some are impotent and irrelevant. At any rate, both types must be monitored closely — persistently and non-superficially — to encourage them to exert their powers appropriately. Moreover, both of these groups (and, indeed, all of us) are faced with millions (basically uncountable) of problems (and problems in the making) within the environment that are not well understood within a useful framework. The institutions that civil society establishes are often too diffuse or too narrow to face these problems effectively, while many seem to be "reinventing the wheel." Institutions of government and business can be too powerful or politically beholden to perform their duties responsibly; they can also be conceptually or administratively misaligned with their mission for many reasons.


There are many sets of problems / situations / contexts that can be addressed with the same pattern. "Institutions" in the sense of people who are organized around certain goals in a persistent way are ubiquitous.


The world of mirrors — and, hence, any discussion of them in a metaphorical way — leads to reflections and reflections of reflections and reflections of reflections of reflections and so on. So be it.

Mirrors reflect, but not perfectly. At the very least they reverse the image that they're reflecting. We're only using mirrors, however, as a metaphor for reflection or replication.

Due to the size and complexity of most of these mirroring endeavors, formal or informal organizations are established to tackle the job. For many reasons organizations that mirror to some degree the area within the overall environment that they are focused on are likely to have more success than those who don't. An institution is society's attempt to make a "machine" whose output is of a desired type. It reflects (however imperfectly) the desires of its creators and maintainers and its "products" are "mirror images" of each other (or at least have the same "family resemblance.") "Mirror Institutions" are those institutions that reflect or reflect upon other institutions or other realities. As such this pattern covers a very wide range. To cover this wide range we've identified four important facets: the reflective mirror institution, the critical mirror institution, the alternative / generative mirror institution, and the flattering mirror institution. The boundaries between these different institutional mirror types aren't clear. It's hard in other words, to know where one ends and another begins. And the "mirror" itself (at least the metaphorical mirror we're talking about) is a constructed object whose object is implicitly or explicitly what it's set up to be and what it has come to be (while realizing, of course, that the characteristics are not completely knowable either but are subject to interpretation themselves — via another mirror. And, like all mirrors, the reflections can be seen from many angles.

The reflective mirror institution is used to help us understand without bias some aspects of the "real world." This institution needs to reflect the most salient aspects of its object back to the people who need to understand the object. Scientists ideally employ this type of mirror institution when they endeavor to understand the complex and intricate relationships within the physical environment.

James A. Wilson in his essay "Matching Social and Ecological Systems in Complex Ocean Fisheries" states that the "mismatch of ecological and management scale makes it difficult to address the fine-scale aspects of ocean ecosystems, and leads to fishing rights and strategies that tend to erode the underlying structure of populations and the system itself." He goes on to state that "This is likely to be achieved by multiscale institutions whose organization mirrors the spatial organization of the ecosystem and whose communications occur through a polycentric network."

Problems can result arise if people believe that they're using a reflection that has perfect fidelity or if they're work is overly influenced by ideology.

The critical mirror institution is used to uncover, analyze and expose the failings of another institution. Using the explicit philosophy, goals, and practices of the institution itself to show the stark contrast between their often noble rhetoric and what they're actually doing is a common approach. In the U.S., for example, the OMB Watch organization performs a "watchdog" function on the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) within the U.S. government. The Bretton Woods project uses the decisions made by global economic powers at the 19__ Bretton Woods meeting as the basis for its critique of international capital and its institutional handmaidens.

The alternative / generative mirror institution is used to develop — and propagate — alternatives to existing institutions. Governments in exile are one use of this pattern, as are community banks, whether they're in Venezuela or other countries. Sometimes the alternative is then mirrored into multiple versions of itself. Federated institutions that are loosely connected to each other and more-or-less the same type of species represent a good way to develop strength globally while maintaining local control. This was used in the realm of independent, non-commercial communication, including community access television, community networks and the Independent Media Centers movements.

The World Social Forum is a blend of two mirror institution facets: the critical and the alternative / generative; it established itself as a counter-forum to the World Economic Forum which promotes alternative ideas and visions. The World Social Forum is also being mirrored in the form of regional and thematic forums.

The flattering mirror institution is an existing mirror, sometimes called an infinite mirror that is self-referential, often self-indulgent, self-deceiving, self-reinforcing, and sycophantic. That is, to a large degree, the state of the media today, endlessly reflecting upon itself like an echo chamber.

[Note that media reflects society — however incompletely — back to itself. As Israeli journalist Gideon Levy of the Haaretz newspaper pointed out "The Palestinians know what the Israelis are doing."]

There are several ways by which to look at any mirror institutions — especially when setting one up.
   The object or environment — What is standing in front of the mirror?
   The reflection — What is being reflected?
   Reflecting on the reflection — What are you seeing in the reflection? Should you be looking for other things?
   The audience — Who is (or should be) peering into the mirror institution?

Does relying exclusively on "reflections" mean that wholly new institutions can't be devised? Although brand new institutions can be created through a series of partial changes, this argues for more of an intelligent (or pragmatic, efficient or opportunistic) design, rather than creation. Decentralized Intelligence Agency?!

Challenges: Adopting and realigning when necessary. Maintaining a network with like-minded organizations — mirror or not. The "mirror" approach is ecological — but who's doing the "higher level" work?? Governments exists to (or should exist to) sort out (or at least assist with the sorting out process) issues related to rights and responsibilities — who (and what) can do something and who (and what) should do something. Associated with this is the task of developing (and exercising) incentives to encourage people to do the right thing and penalties for those who don't.

This is a pattern for conscious adaptation. A pattern transformation, since culture is propagated by its institutions. This is very much an analogy to basic evolutionary theory. Mirroring implies copying -- but generally copying with changes made to one or more aspects of the original in the process. Liberating Voices is a mirror of A Pattern Language.


Although this pattern is may be a bit heavy on abstractions, we believe that the institution-as-mirror metaphor can be very useful primarily due to the questions it brings to the surface. The German playwright, Bertolt Brecht told us that "art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it." The mirror institutions that we create must also to a large degree be put to the same purpose.

Pattern status: