RBPEA: Attachment, non-attachment, non-detachment

It’d be mid-evening by now, I guess, as I wander down to the platform for the tube-train home. As the train-doors open, there’s a cluster of mostly Asian lads down at this end of the train, happily joshing with each other, all dressed up for their night on the town. One of those who’s sitting down notices me as I get on, instantly stands up to offer his seat to this backpack-toting bearded old guy – namely me. “No, no, don’t bother”, I say, “it’s yours, you were here first, I’m fine standing” – and to prove the point, and much to their amusement, I break into a brief jig. Laughing, he sits down again; the train moves on.

Which, by a somewhat roundabout route, brings us to a comment by Doug McDavid to the previous post in this current RBPEA series, ‘RBPEA: Where’s the plan?‘, where he asks:

I am very interested in any thoughts you have in terms of a ‘vision’ of the post-possessionism era (if I can invent that term).

The short answer is that it looks much like what happened right there on the train:

  • there are resources available in some form
  • there are uses for those resources (aka ‘affordances‘)
  • there are needs for those resources (and, in turn, of those resources, but we’ll come back to that later)
  • people use those resources as appropriate
  • people who are using resources continually assess whether others also have needs for those resources, and if those others’ needs appear to have higher priority, offer to transfer use of the resource
  • those others likewise assess if they genuinely do need priority use of that resource
  • the default is that things would usually remain as they are

In other words, on the surface, a responsibility-based economy looks little different to a possession-based one. The human needs are much the same, the resources and facilities to address those needs are much the same, and the ways in which people need to use those resources is much the same, too. Which, in a sense, should start to answer Doug’s next set of questions:

Do you have a vision of how or whether you and I and others could continue to have this kind of inter-continental communication in a post-possessionist era, when, presumably, no person ‘owns’ a computer, nor a home, nor access to a network access point?

Again, I’m not asking for a ‘plan’ … Maybe you can just send up a flare or semaphore signal when you have some time to think about how to craft a vision of how things might realistically look in a post-possessionism universe. A vision that has a strong, attractive appeal? What does it look like? Even through the keyhole?

Here we risk getting somewhat stuck on the limitations of the English language… – in particular, the word ‘possession’, which, among other things, describes:

  • a worldview or paradigm (theory: noun) about relations with (‘ownership’ of) resources – and, all too often, with the-Other-viewed-as-possessable-resource
  • a set of assumptions (theory-in-practice: noun to verb) about relations with resources and the Other-as-resource
  • actions (practice: verb) within relations with resources and the-Other-as-resource
  • state, condition or status (attribute: adjective) assigned to a resource or the-Other-as-resource

When we talk about ‘possessionist’, or “in a post-possessionist era”, we’re primarily talking about the paradigm about relations with resources – not the resources themselves. Yet if we conflate the two together – the paradigm, and the resources themselves – then we risk to falling into an assumption (“presumably” etc, in Doug’s comment above) that if we drop the possessionist-paradigm, then the resources automatically cease to exist, because they’re not ‘possessed’. If we stop to think about this for a moment, though, that’s completely cart-before-horse: the resources will continue to exist regardless of how we relate to them – whereas the paradigm is just a paradigm, a bunch of assumptions. And architecturally speaking, putting a paradigm first, without ever questioning the paradigm itself, is otherwise known as Not A Good Idea…

So let’s step back a bit, look at how this actually works – for example, in terms of Bob Marshall’s ‘Antimatter Principle‘, of “Attend to folks’ needs”.

To Doug’s example above, let’s say that the need is for “this kind of inter-continental communication” – blogs, comments on blogs, things like that.

What are the resources to make that happen? Answer: servers, power-supplies, networks, transport-media (cable, radio, optics, satellite etc), devices, software and all of the rest – it’s quite a long list.

Is there a need for ‘ownership’ of each of these resources, in the sense of responsibility or stewardship of the needs that each resource serves? Answer: yes. (We also need to note that these ownerships need to focus both on the respective individual element – management of the resource-as-itself – and with awareness of the interdependences of the whole – management of the overall system-as-system.)

Who owns those resources? The short-answer (and it’s only the short-answer) is that there’s a maze of different ownership-models involved, including proprietary software and hardware, open-source software and hardware, a maze of contracts (many of which are legally unconscionable anyway), a maze of ‘property-rights’ to physical things, another maze of decidedly-dubious ‘property-rights’ around so-called ‘intellectual-property’, and yet another maze of purported ‘property-rights’ relating to elements that are inherently non-possessable, such as frequency-ranges and the like. Kinda tricky, to say the least…

Is it inherently essential that the system can only operate as a system if each of the ownership for each of the resources is as an individual ‘possession’ of some party? Short answer: no – in fact many of the most common sources of failure in the system-as-system arise at possession-boundaries, and/or from assertions of ‘rights’ to evade concomitant responsibilities that are otherwise inherent in the respective ownership.

In short, possessionism is not what keeps systems together, but what most often causes those systems to fail.

To make sense of that, we need to take yet another step back, and look more closely at possessionism itself.

Which means that we need to remember how a two-year-old thinks about property: “everything is mine, unless I don’t want it” – at which latter point it becomes, very definitely, Somebody Else’s Problem. In possessionism, resources are split two ways:

  • property: desired elements of the resource, including that possessive sense of ‘Mine!!!
  • anti-property: non-desired elements of the resource – ‘not-mine’, ‘not-my-fault’, ‘nothing-to-do-with-me’, ‘Somebody Else’s Problem’

This split is often highly dynamic: the much-wanted toy (especially much-wanted if someone else has it…) suddenly becomes not-wanted at all, dumped on the carpet, thrown across the room. And on both sides of the split, there is an often overt declaration of absence of personal-responsibility: if I want it, others are responsible to give it to me; if I no longer want it, others alone are responsible for tidying up the mess. See a two-year-old’s attitude to an ice-cream, for example: both when they first notice the possibility of ice-cream (the desired property), and what they do with the wrapper (as undesired anti-property) when they’re done with it…

Pollution is an obvious example of anti-property; likewise litter, mining-waste, and so much else – in fact probably the main output and outcome of a possession-based economy is its ever-growing piles of abandoned anti-property, for which no-one acknowledges stewardship or responsibility.

This evasion of responsibility is also perhaps the key characteristic of a paediarchy (‘rule by, for and on behalf of the childish’) – as seen, for example, in the way in which ‘power’ is viewed not as ‘the ability to do work’ (as it is in physics), but as ‘the ability to avoid work’. That systematic avoidance of work often includes attempted-avoidance of work that can only be done by the self – such as skills, relations with others, competence in critical-thinking or development of personal-knowledge, or even the work needed to create and maintain a sense of self. The latter becomes a critical concern when possessions are used as an anchor – or even a substitute – for a sense of self: when the possessions are lost, self-identity may well be lost with them. This again is a key driver behind the visceral ‘need’ for possessions and possessionism as a whole.

The other characteristic of possessionism is that it blocks or breaks the resource-flows that would otherwise follow the natural ebbs and flows of resources responding to the Antimatter Principle’s ‘attend to folks’ needs’. Not just block those flows, in fact, but something much worse from a systems-perspective: the inherent ‘gravity’ in a ‘winner-steals-all’ possessionist-economy is such that resources will naturally flow towards where they are least needed, inherently trending towards ‘the worst possible system‘. To try to make a possessionist economy seem to work, we have to build layer upon layer of kludges, and then further kludges to try to compensate for the unintended-consequences of the earlier kludges, all to try to counter that inherent ‘gravity’, which itself arises from a two-year-old’s inability to understand that things not only change, but need to change, in order for the world to work at all:

It’s not just those elements in the diagram above, but savings, loans, insurances, taxes, welfare-benefits – all of these are necessary only because of the inherent dysfunctions of a money-possession-economy. Which leads us to a crucial point I’ve made before – that futzing around with alternate-currencies and suchlike is, ultimately, a complete waste of time, effort and everything else:

To develop something actually works, we need to go one level deeper beneath the possessionist mistake, to a responsibility-based economy built upon a meshwork of interlocking mutual responsibilities. (Again, note the direct contrast here to the possession-based economy’s meshwork of interlocking mutual avoidances of responsibilities…)

We could also describe this as a service-based economy, since the Antimatter Principle’s ‘attend to folks’ needs’ is probably most easily implemented as a meshwork of mutual services and service-flows.

A crucial point here is that none of this is ‘new’. Historically speaking, possessionism at a whole-of-culture level is a relatively-recent aberration – even its oldest forms go back only perhaps as recent as five thousand years ago, depending on where we look around the world. The closest biological analogy is the relation of a cancer-type parasitism to its host: possessionism has spread as much as it has only because, like a cancer, it depends on ‘growth’ above all else, regardless of the damage that that does to the host. And like a cancer, it eventually kills its host – a situation to which, according to many, many global-scale metrics, we’re already dangerously close. Hence why all of this is a lot more urgent than it might at first seem…

Remember that, as we saw in the post ‘RBPEA: “Love, live, work, hope”‘, the underlying human needs remain the same: the only shift we need is in the means and mindset via which we get there. And if none of this is ‘new’, we can look somewhat-sideways at other larger-scale cultures for ideas about what might work instead.

Given that the challenge we face here is around possessionism and possessions, one useful place we could start is with one of the core principles of Yoga as a spiritual-tradition, namely aparigraha, or ‘non-attachment’:

Let go of the need to control thoughts, people, situations and outcomes. When you let go of things / people / circumstances that hold you down, you create space for lightness and unlimited opportunity. In this idea of non-attachment, you are also asked not to define yourself by your possessions – for instance, if you attach your identity to your ‘stuff’, then who will you be if your ‘stuff’ goes away?

(The others of the ‘ten Yoga principles’ likewise make a lot of sense as guidance for a non-paediarchal culture, but we’ll keep the focus on ‘non-attachment’ for this purpose here.)

At first glance, people often view ‘possession’ as a synonym for ‘attachment’, and hence interpret ‘non-attachment’ to mean ‘no possessions’. Which, to return to Doug’s example, might suggest that the end-point of ‘non-attachment’ would mean no computers, no networks, no blogs, and ultimately no “inter-continental communication in a post-possessionist era”. Yet ‘non-attachment’ doesn’t mean ‘no possessions’: what it means is that the model of ‘ownership’ or management of resources is not based on a childishly-possessionist “it’s mine, it’s mine, you can’t use it unless I say so!”, but on stewardship, on responsibility, on management of the resource as respect of the resource itself, as itself, for self and for others, across all of time and space. In that sense, ownership-as-stewardship demands the kind of adult awarenesses and responsibilities that the more childish amongst us most definitely don’t want…

In other words, ‘non-attachment’ is also ‘non-detachment’. If we take on ownership of a resource, we commit to managing all of it – not just the convenient ‘property’-aspects, and then dumping all of the ‘anti-property’ on everyone else. Given how many of current business-model are ‘profitable’ only through being able to avoid the latter responsibilities, as ‘externalities‘, that one shift in perspective makes it clear just how fragile, dysfunctional and dangerous our current possessionist-economy really is.

So, to again return to Doug’s question, would inter-continental communication still exist in a post-possessionist era? Given that the needs remain the same, the resources remain the same, and the means to link the two together remain much the same, I would suggest that the answer is “Yes”. The only difference is that we get there via a route that is much more viable, reliable and sustainable than at present.

For a practical example that came up a couple days ago, see the BBC video-article ‘Dreamland’s rollercoaster ride to a brighter future‘, about the southern England seaside town of Margate. (That article may be accessible in UK only: see also the Dreamland Trust website and the Dreamland Margate relaunch-website.) Given that we’re currently embedded within a money-based possession-economy, there’s a fair bit of mention in the article about the money raised to make the recovery and rebuild happen. Yet it’s clear that the crucial driver in this case was not so much the possibility of ‘making money’ from the punters, but a passion for the town itself, its history, its purpose, its collective sense of self as a town. Or, in the terms of those needs around “love, live, work, hope”, it’s about ‘somewhat to love’ and ‘something to hope for’, also linked in turn to ‘somewhere to work’ and ‘somewhere to live’. And those drivers would be exactly the same in a post-possessionist economy – if perhaps even more so, once freed of the artificial constraints and distortions of the money-system.

How resources are managed, transferred, protected, within a non-possessionist economy, or how stocks and flows balance out, or how projects and people obtain the resources they need – yes, there are lots and lots and lots of details that need to be resolved, most probably with many local variations, and always in a somewhat emergent way. But the core principles to make it work are already available, well-described, well-proven in millennia-long practice: we know that it works, with many long-established examples even at large scales, significantly more efficient, effective and sustainable than possessionism could ever be. The only thing that’s stopping us is the cancer-like cult of paediarchy, which rewards people for childishly clinging on to ‘possessions’ of every form, and often punishes or penalises people for acting like responsible adults. Might I suggest, rather strongly, that at a literally global scale it’s time for us to grow up?

For more on other aspects of these themes, see, for example:

Over-long, as usual – but hope it’s useful, anyway. Over to you, perhaps?

3 Comments on “RBPEA: Attachment, non-attachment, non-detachment

  1. Well, Tom, you really lost me here. I see that you’re making a strong distinction between two words that in my understanding are as close to true synonyms as humanly possible — “possess” and “own”. I’m trying to get a positive, attractive statement about how it feels to live in a world where there is no more stability anywhere than a seat on on a train. Where, since no one possesses a stable space to live or work, nor a stable computing device (or personal files stored anywhere), how it would feel to try to maintain an ongoing communication in such a situation. But instead of painting such a picture, you accuse me of some kind of paradigm confusion, and make a strong definitional distinction between possession and ownership: “Is there a need for ‘ownership’ of each of these resources, in the sense of responsibility or stewardship of the needs that each resource serves? Answer: yes.”

    It seems that the heart of your argument is that the simple idea of possession, which you DO equate with ownership in the following quote, leads inexorably to a position of treating other people as possessions (or maybe “Other” below does NOT mean “other people”?)
    “the word ‘possession’, which, among other things, describes: a worldview or paradigm (theory: noun) about relations with (‘ownership’ of) resources – and, all too often, with the-Other-viewed-as-possessable-resource”
    If you are saying that because I’d like to control a laptop from one day to the next, I also see other people as slaves, I am hurt, and reject that characterization.

    The fact that I’m trying really hard, in good faith, to understand what you’re saying, because I enjoy your ideas and would love to be able to support you, and yet feel that, because I would like to be able to control my means of communication with folks like you in a reasonably secure environment, I’m being lumped into the universe of those with two-year-old mentalities, is not the attractive alternative that makes me want to enlist in your mission to “improve” the world. I’m pushing you to go beyond casting aspersions to some attractive version of the “improvement”. So far, Not So Much.

    • Doug: “Well, Tom, you really lost me here. I see that you’re making a strong distinction between two words that in my understanding are as close to true synonyms as humanly possible — “possess” and “own”.”

      I apologise: I’ve obviously failed badly here (not just you, but anyone else reading this, I’d guess). The only way I can summarise it right now is that I see ‘possess’ as a subset of ‘own’ – and that if we treat them as synonyms (i.e. what is in effect a term-hijack on ‘own’, much like IT-centrism has been for so long on EA), then almost none of what I’ve said so far can make sense. I’ll have to try another way to explain it, because this one obviously hasn’t worked. Please give me a bit of time to go back to the drawing-board and start again? – and again, my apologies.

      Doug: “If you are saying that because I’d like to control a laptop from one day to the next, I also see other people as slaves, I am hurt, and reject that characterization.”

      That’s not what I’d intended to mean at all. But if you read it as such, then yes, I’d understand why you’d say you’re hurt. Again, best I write this off as a colossal fail on my part in attempted explanation, and again, my apologies. More later when I’ve found another way to describe this.

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