What architectures do we need for a society and economics that’d be viable and sustainable over the longer term? And how do we scale that down to the the everyday work we do at present in enterprise-architectures and the like?
In the previous series I outlined four principles that seem to me to be essential for this:
- there are no rules (there are only guidelines)
- there are no rights (there are only responsibilities)
- money doesn’t matter (but values do)
- adaptability is everything (but don’t abandon the values)
Yeah, I know: not exactly mainstream… and much of it politically-unacceptable to both right and left, too, which brings up some interesting challenges… Oh well.
So I perhaps need to reiterate that this isn’t something I’ve casually thrown together over a weekend or two: there’s actually several decades of study, research, analysis and reflection that’s gone into this, in particular on identifying fundamental requirements and constraints, and on identifying practical approaches and techniques that can be used over the respective timeframes. Every one of the problems I described in those posts is real, solid, and almost certainly inescapable, in terms of where the dominant global culture is currently headed; and every one of those four principles and their concomitant strategies represents a big-picture overview of what we must do in order to avoid the otherwise-inevitable denouement of the respective problems.
None of it is trivial – seriously.
At present, as a professional futurist, I literally do not see any other alternative – and yes, I have looked into it with a lot more depth and care than most people seem to do. (Hence, for example, why I say that no ‘alternative currency’ will solve the current global crisis with fiat-currencies, and that the only future of money is that it has no future – that’s not wishful-thinking, folks, it’s a key constraint on human survival in the longer-term.)
Yet as soon as people get over their first ‘you cannot be serious!‘ shock at this, and realise that, yes, I am serious, there seem to be two reflex responses: the ‘kumbaya’ dismissal, and the ‘it’s human nature’ excuse. The purpose of both of these objections seems to be to defend a literal ‘ignore-ance’ – which is a bit of a worry… And since, in the longer term, this is literally a matter of life and death – with the latter potentially on an almost unimaginable scale – it’s worthwhile to spend a bit of time on both of these two objections.
The ‘kumbaya’ dismissal views any questioning of the current possession-based economics as hopelessly idealistic. Richard West neatly summarised this attitude on Twitter in his happy retort:
RT @RiczWest: @tetradian You, Sir, are a Hippy! 🙂
Ric was joking, of course, but that is how a lot of people would prefer to interpret this: the stereotypic hippy with long hair and beard, huddled together with others around a campfire, smoking strange substances and singing ‘Kumbaya’ to the accompaniment of a badly-tuned guitar. “All peace an’ love, man” – hah! Let’s get back to the real world, shall we?
Nice idea, perhaps, but unfortunately I’m not much of a hippy, and I never was. Those campfires bring out the chilblains something rotten, y’know; my lungs aren’t up to smoking anything; my singing-voice is barely one step removed from a donkey’s; and I don’t even know how to play a guitar. Sorry. (Okay, I do have a beard these days, but that’s mainly to hide the fact that I’m all but bald: “my hair hasn’t fallen out, it’s just slipped down a bit…” 🙁 🙂 ) Fact is that I’m just a grumpy old backroom-boffin, and I probably always have been: the only difference is that I’ve now kind of grown into the supposed ‘proper age’ for the role. And it’s that boring old backroom-boffin that’s talking here, the futurist, the enterprise-architect – not the non-existent hippy in the tie-dyed suit. So this isn’t some kind of flittery-floatery acid-dream, it’s all depth-analysis and, much, much more, all of it just about as deep as it can go – and yes, it is indeed dead-serious. Literally. Not wise to be quite so quick to dismiss it, perhaps?
So let’s go through this once again:
— Personal possession and ‘property-rights’ are probably the foundation-stones for many cultures and for the current global-economy.
— A possession-based economy does tend to give better results for individuals in the short-term. (Which is why it’s such a foundation-stone of the global-economy.)
— However, any detailed study of possession-based economics would illustrate that it achieves its ‘better short-term results’ by creating externalities – in other words, and often in an all too literal sense, by stealing from (dispossessing and/or expropriating) others in the present and/or elsewhen. (A simple example: collectively we are blasting our way each year through something like 100,000 years’-worth of fossil-energy, which will therefore be unavailable to others in the future.)
— A possession-based economy seems viable in the short-term solely because it offloads most of its costs elsewhere and/or elsewhen. When whole-of-system costing is properly assessed, it becomes clear that there is no way to make a possession-based economy sustainable, especially in the longer-term.
— The only way to make a possession-based economy seem sustainable is to run it as a pyramid-game – hence the global-economy’s obsession with ‘growth’.
— The blunt reality is that it is impossible to have infinite growth on a finite planet. As with all pyramid-games, once the game runs out of room to expand, its only possible option is to cannibalise itself into oblivion. Many of the global indicators suggest that we are already well into that phase of the game.
— A ‘rights’-based model of property is inherently dysfunctional, as per all notions of ‘rights’. (All rights may be – and often are – ‘gamed’ into a paediarchy: ‘rule by, for and on behalf of the childish’.)
— As it reaches further and further into its self-cannibalisation phase, a global economy based on ‘property-rights’ will and must inevitably implode into increasingly-dysfunctional and decreasingly-viable states: a steep decline into ‘resource-wars’ or into slave-cultures dominated by narcissistic sociopaths with delusions of ‘entitlement’ above all others are just some of the more probable scenarios already starting to be evidenced in the present-day.
— Purported ‘property-rights’ are an abstract and arbitrary overlay on the actual mechanisms that enable economic interaction, namely interlocking mutual responsibilities.
— In the longer-term, the only viable option that we have is to reject the entirety of the ‘possession’ overlay, and rebuild the economics around the actual mechanisms of mutual-responsibility.
Or, in visual form:
The point that needs to be hammered home is that any instance of purported ‘possession’ or ‘property-rights’ – in fact any form of purported ‘rights’ – will and must automatically cause a fall-back into the same non-viable mess, or some other (probably worse) variant of that mess.
No matter how much we might wish otherwise, there is no way of getting around this fact: there is no way to make a possession-based economy sustainable. And the longer we avoid facing that fact, the worse the mess becomes, and the worse our collective chances of long-term survival also become. It really is as fundamental as that.
Hence talking about an end to possession-based economics is not ‘kumbaya idealism’ at all: it’s almost certainly the only viable strategy for long-term survival that currently exists.
In short, it’s the most realistic and pragmatic view of economic reality: the ‘woolly-headed idealists’ are the ones who think that possession can somehow still be made to work. 🙂
The catch, of course, is going to be in getting this shift to happen, in the (relatively) short time in which we must somehow make it work. Ouch…
Which brings us to the ‘it’s human nature’ excuse – the idea that possessiveness and suchlike are ‘just human nature’, and therefore there’s no possible alternative to a possession-based economy.
All I can say to that is that it’s bullshit: a really shallow excuse, and ultimately a suicidal one at that – but a form of suicide that threatens to take everyone else with it, which is not a good idea from anyone’s perspective…
The reason why it’s bullshit is that it’s based on nothing more than intellectual-laziness – a very thin and inadequate understanding of what ‘human nature’ really is.
Selfishness, self-centredness and possessiveness are indeed ‘human nature’ – for a two-year-old. It’s an entirely natural outcome or side-effect of a transient developmental stage. Unlike the one-year-old, the two-year-old does have a grasp of the distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’, but doesn’t have much grasp of self in relation to other: it still sees itself as the sole centre of the world, the point around which everything else revolves. The typical two-year-old sees everything ‘other’ as objects to be used according to whim, or as subjects that exist only as semi-autonomous extensions of self and that ‘should’ automatically know, act upon and serve the child’s whim. (Stereotypically, the object-based view is ‘male’, the subject-based view is ‘female’, but in reality gender plays only a small part in this.)
For a while, as it passes through this phase, a normal two-year-old will hold an unshakable certainty that it is the centre of everyone else’s world, that it is entitled to priority over all others – and be very vocal, demanding and even aggressive in asserting those ‘rights’ over others, too. (The resultant temper-tantrums and the like are why this stage is colloquially known as ‘the terrible twos’…)
Yet this is – or should be – a transient phase: in most cultures, a normal four- or six-year-old will have a fairly solid grasp of sharing and of mutual responsibilities in a social context. In functional cultures, even an eight-year-old would begin to have a fair grasp of systems-thinking, awareness of the interdependence of everything on everything else. Clinging on to possessiveness and the like, beyond about three or four years of age, is a developmental disability, or literally a social pathology – hence the term ‘sociopath’.
In a paediarchy, though, possessiveness is regarded as ‘normal’, and is actively rewarded, whilst a more natural sharing (‘natural’ in terms of normal child-development) is often denigrated, deprecated, or openly mocked: certainly there will be active disincentives to share. This can be seen, for example, in the way that Ayn Rand – the high-priestess of a popular cult of self-importance and self-centredness – derided altruism as ‘evil’. At the least, in my own first-hand experience of US culture, altruism is still often viewed there as something very odd, a strange social-pathology giving rise to a compulsion to share with others without thought of immediate personal gain. In most other cultures, however, altruism is correctly understood as normal whole-of-systems-aware behaviour – and a real necessity for the society’s survival…
Let’s be utterly blunt about this: paediarchy is fundamentally sociopathic. Our entire ‘normal’ possession-based economics is paediarchy writ large, and hence is fundamentally sociopathic, actively rewarding childish self-centredness and sociopathic behaviour, and often actively penalising more-adult responsible behaviour. The whole foundation of our current economics is pathological: at least in terms of normal child-development, there is no other way to put it.
Hence, we might suggest, it might be wise to develop an economy that’s not based on a child-development pathology…
So how the heck do we do that?
Where I’d suggest we’d best begin is to look much more closely at habits and behaviours – both individual and collective – and the social and other architectures that support them. And to start that exploration, we can note that there are very strong parallels between the layering of structures in the brain (‘lizard-brain’ versus cortex etc), the developmental processes of learning how to use those layered structures, and the development of integration of sensemaking, decision-making and action, leading to a literal ‘response-ability’ – the ability to choose appropriate responses in a given context. In short, how we learn to choose and have some degree of direction over what happens to and with and for us in the real-world.
Probably the simplest to describe this (and be warned that yes, this is hugely over-simplified, although essentially valid) is to use the decision-making variant of the SCAN frame:
For most work with SCAN I’d typically focus more on the horizontal axis, the ‘order’/’unorder’ split either side of the vertical red-line; but for here I want to emphasise the vertical dimension, because in effect that dotted-line boundary represents the crucial distinction between the emotion-driven limbic-system and ‘lizard-brain’ below the line, and the ‘rational’ cortex and neocortex above.
Again, I’m massively over-simplifying here, but in essence the ‘rational’ systems work mainly on processing and reflecting on the senses. Yet crucially, all of that processing takes time – and in effect, it takes place at some distance from the action. When we’re at the point of action, the ‘lizard-brain’ and suchlike are what actually run the show, because they can respond ‘in the moment’ – and it’s the ‘lizard-brain’ and suchlike that in effect determine so-called ‘human nature’.
That dotted-line transition in SCAN represents that same transition between guidance for reflection versus guidance for action. Which in turn is very similar to the transition between Newtonian-physics versus quantum-physics: Newtonian-physics looks smooth and predictable and certain, but underneath it all of it is actually driven by sharp-edged and often somewhat-unpredictable quantum-transitions.
But note that the ‘boundary’ is porous: it’s not one-or-the-other – one ‘over‘ the other – but much more like a cooperative partnership, which side focussing on its own roles and responsibilities, but committed together to the best working of the whole-as-whole. One useful metaphor here is the partnership of rally-driver and rally-navigator – respectively the lizard-brain driving the action, and the cortex providing big-picture awareness and reflection. Likewise we can see the same partnership of distinct roles and responsibilities in the underlying structure of Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model:
Which, for a service-oriented view of the respective architecture, I simplified to:
Which I then reworked into the upper part of the Enterprise Canvas model:
The ‘lizard-brain’ and suchlike (the human equivalent of the ‘control-functions’ for the VSM’s ‘system-1’ sub-units) drive the service itself – the actual delivery of the various services of the human body and its actions, and the real-time choices for those actions. The cortex and suchlike (equivalents of the VSM system-3, -4 and -5 ‘management-services’ or ‘direction-services’, system-3* ‘pervasive-‘ or ‘validation-services’, and system-2 ‘coordination-services’) drive the other longer-term coordination, reflection guidance and review. They’re not separate from each other, and it’s not one-way (as in Taylorism) but an interaction between ‘head’ and ‘heart’ (to mix metaphors somewhat).
In effect, ‘human nature’ is a palette of options that are sort-of (but only ‘sort-of’) hardwired into the human systems. But whilst the palette is fixed (sort-of), the use of that of that palette is not. The trick here is that the ‘lizard-brain’ et al are creatures of habit, in terms of the ways they use that palette of options – and, given the right conditions, those habits can be changed. The change can sometimes take place in an instant, but more usually it’s via a process of gentle nudges and reminders just ahead of the moment of action – just enough to tweak things a bit, not enough to disrupt the action itself. Overall, it’s similar to the ‘counter-entropy‘ trick that living-entities leverage to create their niche for life in a mechanical universe: it’s a trick, and it works, but it depends an awful lot on the timing…
So although we can’t change ‘human nature’ as such, we can choose to emphasise or de-emphasise different themes within it, and (re)build new habits around those changed emphases – which, in practice, does come to much the same thing as changing human-nature.
Which is how and why different cultures are different: it’s because they emphasise and de-emphasise different aspects of ‘human nature’.
So yes, possessiveness is ‘human nature’ – for a two-year-old child. But we also know that it’s a habit of behaviour that’s not viable in the longer-term at a cultural level – especially in a resource-constrained, rapidly-changing context. Possessiveness leads to an inefficient and ineffective use of shared resources: it really is as simple as that. So in most social environments – such as in those we’d call ‘families’ – we would aim to de-emphasise those possessive behaviours, and instead emphasise other aspects of ‘human nature’ such as sharing, altruism, notions of fairness and suchlike – which is otherwise known as ‘growing up’ in a social sense. Someone has to grow up and do the adult work, the adult thinking, otherwise the society won’t be able to survive.
In a paediarchy, though, the now-dysfunctional childish habits are retained and reinforced, through the usual social mechanisms such as praise and reward. The adult/child relationship is inverted: the childish are deemed the ‘masters’, the ‘owners’, the ‘entitled ones’, whilst the adults are the ‘servants’ who seemingly exist only to do the ‘master’s bidding – which is exactly how a two-year-old sees the world in relation to itself. Yet when childishness is actively rewarded, and responsibility is mocked, derided, penalised, punished, who would want to be an adult? Oops…
We now have a global culture built on ‘property-rights’, possessiveness, and systematic evasion of long-term responsibility. It gives successful-seeming results for some in the short-term because it steals from elsewhere and elsewhen, and ignores anything in the longer-term – just like a two-year-old child does.
To be blunt, what we now have as ‘the economy’, worldwide, is a culture that bases itself on childish possessiveness, which in turn is the outcome of a collective, culture-wide choice to not grow up. Which is not exactly a wise choice: as a mother would no doubt say to her children, “I know it’s fun now, but it’ll only end in tears!”
And to also be blunt, that culture – our culture – is rapidly running out of places and times to steal from, and the distant-seeming long-term is rapidly becoming right-here-right-now: so we have a very real problem that will not go away and cannot be ignored any longer.
But the point here is that that possessive paediarchy is a choice, and we can choose otherwise: and at this stage it’s getting kinda urgent to we do choose otherwise…
So how do we choose otherwise? The short answer is: start looking at things that do work in the longer-term; learn from them; and then face the architectural challenges of adapting them to a broader context at a global scale. For example:
— Many indigenous cultures have been stable for very long periods of time: up to 60,000 in the case of Australian aboriginal culture. There’s a lot we can learn from those cultures, and groups like the Pachamama Alliance also provide an active laboratory for adapting those experiences to the present-day. In a significant number of cases, they do show us how to integrate whole-of-system awareness into a social culture that is resilient and self-adapting over huge environmental, climatic and other changes. The catch is that so far most of this has worked only with relatively-small social groups, and often with relatively simple technologies: what we don’t yet know is how to apply it to much larger populations in modern cities, with all the added complexities of urban stress, urban living and urban supply-chains that are already stretched almost to breaking-point.
— In the work-environment, the inherent dysfunctionalities of the ‘top-down’ command-and-control management-model are now fairly well understood. (Sadly, the model itself is still widely promoted in business-schools and elsewhere as ‘a good idea’, even though it is manifestly a by-product of the self-aggrandising myths of an out-of-control paediarchy.) As a contrast, there is much that we can learn from other forms of management – from the long-established cooperative-movement, for example, or from employee-owned businesses, all the way up to large-scale industrial conglomerates such as Mondragon – and the ways in which these models can support greater resilience to the stresses of change. What we don’t know is how to introduce and support those alternative models within a legal and economic framework which, at present, has huge vested-interests against their existence: for example, by definition, employee-ownership disintermediates and renders redundant any ‘external-owner’ stock-exchange and the whole ‘money-mess’ that surrounds it.
— One of the all-too-common characteristics of childishness is a lack of thought, not just about others but also about consequences of actions, especially at a less-visible and less-direct systemic level. Likewise one of the characteristics of a paediarchy – and one of the means by which it maintains its control – is a cultural-wide suppression of systemic thought, instead insisting on rote-learning, repeating ‘received-truths’ whether or not they are still ‘true’ or relevant in the current context. This doesn’t work when most of the so-called ‘certainties’ cease to be certain at all: the real need here, to paraphrase Margaret Mead, is that children need to be taught not so much what to think, as how to think. Through long-proven methods such as HighScope, we do now know how to teach even three-year-olds that actions and inactions alike always have consequences, and that self-awareness and self-responsibility is the only way works well for everyone – and to teach all of this, effectively and quickly, at large scale, even in the most stressed of urban environments. What we don’t know is how to make this work in a context where, in effect, the children’s habits and behaviours will be more ‘adult’ than those of the nominal adults – possibly for at least two or three generations.
So yes, there are some real challenges there. Or, to be honest, they’re huge long-term challenges on a truly global scale – and it’ll need a huge amount of inventiveness, subtlety and just plain hard work for it to be put in place within the fast-narrowing time-window we have available in which to make it work. Scary indeed. But please, don’t let us hide from those challenges in the ‘it’s human nature’ excuse: it really is nothing more than a pathetic excuse for procrastination, and we simply don’t have the time to waste on that.
Time to get moving, folks: there’s a lot of architecture-work that needs to be done, all the way out to the really-big-picture level, to rebuild the viability of this shared-enterprise of our shared world.