Looking at the big picture

In case you’ve been wondering why I’ve been ranting about those apparently-abstract ideas about ‘Possessed by possession‘ and the like…

What I’ve been calling ‘Really-Big-Picture enterprise-architecture‘ is about looking at how we can apply enterprise-architecture ideas at a much larger scale, right up to a fully global scope. The simplest way to describe this is as follows:

  • every society or culture is held together by mutual responsibilities
  • in some (but not all) societies, there may be an overlay of personal possession
  • arising from this concept of possession is a notion of property rights
  • to support exchange of personal property in accordance with property-rights, we have point-to-point barter
  • to resolve the point-to-point nature of barter, we introduce an intermediary currency
  • to support futures in a currency-based economics, we introduce the idea of debt-based finance
  • to support certain types of debt, we introduce financial-derivatives

All straightforward, all non-pejorative, a simple stack of overlays, each one built on top of the previous layers. We could summarise it visually like this:

There’s only one catch: it doesn’t work.

Most people realise by now that there are huge problems with financial-derivatives and the like: anything that is potentially-infinite that claims to have absolute rights over something that’s definitely finite is by definition going to be problematic. But that isn’t the core problem that we have to deal with.

Debt-based finance is a problem: it tends by definition to concentrate all wealth in the hands of those who control the mechanisms of debt. But that too isn’t the core problem that we have to deal with.

A lot of people argue that the problem lies with the currency: if we could switch to an alternate-currency, they say, everything would work out just fine. There are huge arguments about what kind of currency we should move to – time-based, ‘local energy’, reputation-points or whatever. But the reality is that all of those arguments are almost completely irrelevant, because currency itself isn’t the core problem that we have to deal with.

Some people say that we should drop the whole currency-thing, and go back to barter. But the point-to-point nature of barter causes huge problems, which in many ways currency does help to resolve. But in any case, barter isn’t the core problem that we have to deal with.

Quite a few people say that the real issue is around property-rights. Capitalists and communists alike will argue intensely over who has the right to possess, and who doesn’t. But this misses the point too, because property-rights in themselves aren’t the core problem that we have to deal with.

The real problem is the concept of possession – because that’s what breaks the mutuality of responsibilities on which a sustainable society and its economics depend. Possession is a literally childish view of an economy, one which asserts the primacy of ‘I’ over ‘We’. It’s a view which asserts that that the only thing that matters is my own needs and desires, that I am not responsible to others, either in the present or elsewhen – yet still insists that they are and must still be responsible to me. The reality is that the moment we allow that kind of pseudo-mutuality to exist, by definition we have a broken economy: there’s no way we can make it sustainable – especially over the longer-term.

Imagine an economy that’s run by, for and on behalf of the most childish in the society, and in which anyone who does take responsibility is punished for doing so. That would be insane, wouldn’t it? – in every sense of ‘insane’… Yet what we would have there is something remarkably similar to what we think of as ‘the economy’ in the present day – an ‘economy’ that’s ultimately based on the possessive self-centred temper-tantrums of a two-year-old…

Yet the fact is that anything based on a possession-model will tend automatically to create dysfunctional failure, to not only invent a status of ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ but an ever-widening gap between them, to always assign far higher priority to the present than to future or past, and to create a ‘trickle-up’ pyramid-game structure that can only appear to work as long as it can maintain an illusion of infinite ‘growth’ – because if the growth ever stops, its only option is to cannibalise itself into oblivion. There is no possible way to make a possession-based economy sustainable.

Which means that we have a rather serious problem. If possession doesn’t work – and not only doesn’t work, but by definition can’t work – and we need to move towards a truly sustainable economy – which, with seven billion humans and still increasing fast, we clearly do – then it means that we need to rethink not just possession itself, but everything that’s built on top of it. In short, every single one of those overlays is irrelevant, because they’re built on top of something that doesn’t work. Or, to put it in simple graphic form:

If the core problem is possession, then it should be evident that futzing around at any of the layers that are built on top of that myth of possession is not going to make any significant difference. It’s a waste of time, of effort, of everything else – a waste that we can ill afford right now, given the real inescapable all-too-literally ‘deadlines’ that we’re starting to face in the near future. Our only option is scrap the whole lot, and start again almost from scratch – because anything that retains any hint of possession in its structure will cause the whole thing to fail all over again.

And yet it’s scary just how much of our society and economics and the rest assume that possession is the only way to go. Just to give one small example: if “possession is nine-tenths of the law”, what does that tell us about what changes in law would be needed for a sustainable society? Not a trivial problem, yes…?

Yet I do believe that enterprise-architects have skills that could be genuinely useful for this type of challenge. We’re used to working at large scale, and at every scale, across every aspect of a whole system. We’re used to seeing how all of the different aspects come together to make a single unified whole. We’re used to doing roadmaps for change and suchlike – and the, uh, interesting politics that go with any large-scale change. What we have here is still enterprise-architecture, still the ‘big-picture’ – just a rather bigger picture than we’re used to, that’s all.

So that’s what I’m describing as ‘Really-Big-Picture Enterprise-Architecture’ – a form of enterprise-architecture where the ‘enterprise’ in scope is actually everything that happens and will happen in human activity on the entirety of the planet. In other words, probably the largest enterprise-architecture challenge that any of us will ever face. Interested? 🙂

2 Comments on “Looking at the big picture

  1. Hi Tom,

    I think you’re analysis is very much to the point. In essence it is questioning the viability of a basic principle (fundamental belief, etc.). in this case it seems to me that either there is a basis principle of mutual responsibility or personal possesion. Although they are not entirely each others opposites, they do seem to collide in a big manner.

    Getting this discussion into the scale of all human behaviour on the entirety of the planet, I feel you’re entering the field of philosphy.

    I do agree however that enterprise architects do need to question the basic principles of an organisation. In any case where a certain stakeholders cannot agree on a common solution for any given challenge, I am convinced there are underlying principles they (unknowingly or knowingly) disagree over.

    kind regards, Bart

  2. @Bart den Dulk – Thanks for this.

    “A basic principle of mutual responsibility or personal possession” – I don’t see this as a simple ‘either/or’, because in effect possession is an overlay on top of responsibility: it declares that certain responsibilities apply only to others, and do not apply to self. (The logical-fallacy in that assertion within a social context should be obvious, I think? The two options arising from that fallacy are either to build layer after layer of workarounds to pretend that the fallacy doesn’t exist – which is what our dominant cultures have done for the past five thousand years or so – or else reject it outright – which is the position we’re slowly being forced back into now, because the facts of the inherent unsustainability of the consequences of the fallacy are coming home to roost.)

    “I feel you’re entering the field of philosophy” – not really, other than perhaps in the same sense that the disciplines of science were once described as ‘natural philosophy’. The closest parallel would actually be economics, in its proper sense of ‘the management of the household’, at a global scale of ‘household’. Much of conventional enterprise-architecture is about the functional-economics of a department, an organisation, or perhaps a consortium: this is really just the same thing, but at a larger scale.

    “EAs do need to question the basic principles of an organization … underlying principles [stakeholders] disagree over” – yes, exactly. And again, we now do have some good tools for that: for example, I’m a big fan of Nigel Green’s VPEC-T, where its Values and Trust components specifically tackle those kinds of issues around principles and the like.

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