A theory of cultural evolution

In 2017 my colleague Xaver Wiemann and I presented our perspective on cultural evolution in a poster on filtering, collaboration, thinking, and learning tools for the next 200 years at the inaugural cultural evolution conference in Jena (Germany). Given the fast transmission and amplification of opinions that went hand in hand with the commercialisation of the internet over the last 20 years, we compared the perceived benefits of storytelling with the known dangers and limits of storytelling.

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In view of the need to reinvent the foundations of civilisation for life in the Anthropocene (the theme of the CIIC workshop in September 2018), it is worthwhile to dive a bit deeper into current scientific understanding and historical evidence related to the mechanisms that drive human cultural evolution.

Computer based simulations of transmissions of beliefs in social networks confirm that once 10% of a population is committed to an idea, it’s inevitable that it will eventually become the prevailing opinion of the entire group. The key is to remain committed.

To prime the simulation, scientists “sprinkled” in true believers of new beliefs into different types of networks.

These people were completely set in their views and unflappable in modifying those beliefs. As those true believers began to converse with those who held the traditional belief system, the tides gradually and then very abruptly began to shift.

“In general, people do not like to have an unpopular opinion and are always seeking to try locally to come to consensus. We set up this dynamic in each of our models,” said SCNARC Research Associate and corresponding paper author Sameet Sreenivasan. To accomplish this, each of the individuals in the models “talked” to each other about their opinion. If the listener held the same opinions as the speaker, it reinforced the listener’s belief. If the opinion was different, the listener considered it and moved on to talk to another person. If that person also held this new belief, the listener then adopted that belief.

An important aspect of the finding is that the percent of committed opinion holders required to shift majority opinion does not change significantly regardless of the type of network in which the opinion holders are working. In other words, the percentage of committed opinion holders required to influence a society remains at approximately 10 percent, regardless of how or where that opinion starts and spreads in the society.

To understand how human societies operate and how culture evolves, it is important to differentiate two fundamentally different categories of beliefs:

  1. Opinions: Beliefs that are adopted via a rapid social transmission process, without any deeper levels of understanding of supporting evidence, related domain expertise, or the origins of the belief. The process of social belief propagation can be described as as influencing or as cultural education. People engaging in such activities are often referred to as influencers. People holding opinions are unable to answer “why?” questions over multiple levels with respect to their beliefs or are unable to point to concrete evidence that can be independently verified.
  2. Evidence based facts: Beliefs that are adopted and updated slowly and incrementally, based on first hand experiences and experiments with the physical world and with other living agents. Evidence based facts are generated via creative play or via more or less rigorous application of the scientific method, by examining, (in)validating, and by refining the scientific results produced by others. The process of propagating facts and related evidence and levels of uncertainty is often referred to as scientific education. People engaging in such activities are often referred to as scientific educators. A deeper level of understanding of specific domains of interest allows educators to develop scientific theories and predictive models, and also allows them to answer “why?” questions over multiple levels.

When beliefs that represent evidence based facts are propagated via the rapid and superficial process of cultural education, the resulting level of understanding is limited to opinions, and thus the recipients remain open to further influencing from those with different opinions.

In contrast, when beliefs that represent evidence based facts are propagated via a critical self-reflective process of scientific education that is at least one order of magnitude slower than the process of cultural education,  recipients – to a certain degree – are immunised against influence from those with opinions that contradict evidence based understanding.

Belief systems and their limits

Both opinions and evidence based facts are not propagated in isolation, but as part of conceptual frames and metaphors involving a set of related concepts and beliefs.

Within complex societies the frames that are associated with opinions are aggregated into dogmatic belief systems (sometimes referred to as group identities or isms). Over time individuals adopt a multitude of dogmatic belief systems, some of which may relate to large groups and others of which may relate to small groups of believers.

The frames that are associated with evidence based facts are aggregated into belief systems referred to as scientific paradigms. A single individual may over time become proficient in the use of a variety of paradigms relating to one or more domains of empirical knowledge.

The boundaries between dogmatic belief systems and scientific paradigms are not always clear cut. In particular in the age of “big data”, the reliance on “second hand” and “derived” data is making it increasingly difficult and time consuming to verify scientific theories and associated evidence.

The potential of scientific education lies in its ability to act as an immunisation against dogmatic belief systems that may inflict serious damage on the planetary ecosystem and its ability to sustain larger mammals including humans.

The main danger of traditional forms of scientific education lies in the potential for the creation of narrow silos of knowledge. In this context transdisciplinary meta paradigms such as MODA + MODE can be assist to establish bridges and essential levels of shared understanding between knowledge silos and paradigms.

Learning vs manipulation

Both cultural education and scientific education results in learned beliefs that are of value for collaboration and co-ordination within social groups. However cultural education (and scientific education to a lesser degree, only when contaminated with tampered evidence) can also be used for social manipulation and for the perpetuation of social power gradients within stratified groups and societies, which leads to potentially dangerous levels of cultural inertia and limits the ability of a group or society to learn and adapt to changes in the environment.

The vast majority of online social communication tools have been designed to support and promote the propagation of beliefs via the rapid process of influence rather than via the much slower process of evidence based learning and education.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the role of influence within the dogmatic belief system of financial capitalism that underpins our current society.

Financial capitalism turns human life into a popularity contest where money is the most effective tool for gaining influence and social status in a primate dominance hierarchy. Instead of celebrating the innate human collaborative tendencies, financial capitalism (similar to earlier forms of human “civilisations”) systematically exploits the psychological weaknesses that humans share with other primates, and discards valuable cultural insights from earlier small scale (human scale) hunter gather societies that originally allowed humans to become more successful than other primates.

If collectively we are interested in creating a more equitable society, and in developing cultural practices and tools that improve our ability to adapt and learn to live on a finite planet, together with a rich diversity of other species within a dynamically evolving planetary ecosystem, then we can’t afford to close our eyes and ignore the abuse of influence for the purpose of  perpetuating beliefs and behavioural patterns that are systematically destroying our only life support system in the universe.

Preventing the abuse of influence for personal gain

The challenge: Where in society are we likely to find groups where 10% of the people within the group are committed to

  1. the slow and gradual process of knowledge validation and scientific education
  2. and to the prevention of the abuse of influence?

The following video clip illustrates the dominant role of influence and the negligible role of evidence based understanding in the power dynamics within modern “civilised” societies, even amongst the more honest politicians.

For corporate and government politicians who are drunk on the drug of social power, life is a popularity contest. The need for learning and deeper levels of understanding is minimised, and the lives of others become secondary considerations that rank below the objective of maintaining and strengthening established power structures.

Perhaps we should look to neurodivergent people, who are committed to learning as much as possible from first hand experience, who have above average levels of perseverance, and who are less subject to being influenced by popular opinion. Creative neurodivergent people are essential as catalysts for cultural change.

In particular autistic people tend to:

  1. apply the precautionary principle when assessing risks and making important decisions
  2. have a deeper than average levels of understanding of specific domains of interest, and as a result are able to answer “why?” questions over multiple levels, and are able pass on their first hand domain experience and knowledge to others – they act as experimenters and scientific educators
  3. be committed to updating their knowledge based on new evidence, and are not easily persuaded by popular opinions that are not backed up by evidence / local first-hand experience

Non-neurodivergent people tend to:

  1. ignore the precautionary principle as needed to maintain or increase their popularity
  2. have average levels of scientific understanding of their social and physical environment, and as a result are unable to answer “why?” questions over multiple levels – they act mainly as influencers and amplifiers of opinions and cultural practices
  3. be concerned about their level of popularity, and may swiftly adapt their beliefs to shifts in popular opinions

Judy Singer, an autistic activist who coined the term neurodiversity in 1998, frames the essence into one simple observation:

“I always used to say: There are two types of people in the world. Those who would never let the pursuit of social acceptance get in the way of the pursuit of Truth. And those who would never let the pursuit of Truth get in the way of the pursuit of social acceptance.”

From what anthropologists and archaeologists can deduce from small scale prehistoric “uncivilised” societies, the most important social norms in all such societies apparently were norms that prevented individuals from gaining social power over others.

It is time to depathologise neurodiversity and reintegrate this old wisdom into the fabric of our societies.

Collectively our preferences for either trusting influencers or evidence based learning  constitute a choice between the madness of crowds and the wisdom of crowds.

Successful cultural transformation relies on the existence of easily accessible psychologically safe and neurodiversity friendly environments in time and space (physical and virtual) as crystallisation points for knowledge sharing.

The local social environment around neurodivergent people allows the 10% threshold for the propagation of new insights and deep innovation to be reached mainly via a continuous process of creative exploration and evidence based understanding, and much less so via the easily corruptible process of social influence.

The result is a healthy form of cultural evolution that leaves adequate room for knowledge validation and the precautionary principle, and that offers less opportunities for manipulative social power games.

Releasing the handbrake on learning and collaboration

The easiest path for improving organisational learning involves reducing the influence of hierarchical power structures and bureaucracy by implementing a simple advice process. Before making a major decision that affects others in the organisation:

  1. A person has to seek advice from at least one trusted colleague with potentially relevant or complementary knowledge or expertise.
  2. Giving advice is optional. It is okay to admit lack of expertise. This enables the requestor to proceed on the basis of the available evidence.
  3. Following advice is optional. The requestor may ignore advice if she/he believes that all things considered there is a better approach or solution. Not receiving advice in a timely manner is deemed equivalent to no relevant advice being available within the organisation. This allows everyone to balance available wisdom with first hand learning and risk taking.
  4. A few simple prosocial design principles provide guidance for dealing with people who regularly ignore relevant advice (or consistently refuse to seek or give advice) and therefore regularly cause downstream problems for others as a result. Such situations are obvious for all involved. A persistent breakdown of collaboration either results in a significant change in behaviour once the downstream problems are recognised, or in the non-cooperative person leaving the organisation.

Onwards towards trusted collaboration at human scale

Join us for the next CIIC workshop on 8 December (Auckland) and 15 December (Melbourne)! CIIC provides a great opportunity for all participants to outline wicked problems they are wrestling with, and to obtain access to the perspectives and questions from others with complementary expertise and interests.


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Creating an inclusive culture of innovation and collaboration

Psychological safety is a fundamental prerequisite for creating a learning organisation and for reducing the organisational and individual bias against creativity. Yes, you read correctly, humans have a bias against creativity at both a collective and at an individual level. Overcoming that bias is only possible in a safe environment that includes people with neurodivergent cognitive lenses. Neurodiversity is the at the core of creativity.

A genuinely safe environment allows people to be themselves, take risks, make mistakes, raise problems, ask questions, and disagree.

Does your organisation offer safety?

Creating collaborative learning organisations / ecosystems is as much about unlearning traditional management techniques from the industrial era, as it is about reacquainting ourselves with our innate collaborative tendencies and relearning how to be curious and how to think critically.

The limits of industrial era thinking have been recognised for many decades as illustrated in this classic dialogue between Russell Ackoff and W Edwards Deming.

Note the comments on idealised redesign, institutionalised dysfunctionality, and the interconnections between learning and teaching.

Many organisations today are still stuck in the information age – trying to “monetise” information, ignorant of how to transition to the knowledge age – which benefits from creativity, trusted collaboration, niche construction and knowledge flows, rather than from simplistic information flows.

Learning is catalysed by providing safe open spaces

The value of open spaces is obvious to regular CIIC attendees, but it is not widely understood by most organisations, usually as a result of never having experienced genuinely safe open spaces in a world dominated by busyness as usual and delusional conceptions of success and performance.

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S23M is facilitating a CIIC-style Open Space workshop in relation to the healthcare sector in New Zealand on the topic of this blog post (trust building, thinking, and learning tools to create an inclusive culture) at the upcoming HiNZ conference on 21 November in Wellington.

This workshop brings together a broad range of professionals working in the healthcare sector, academic researchers, and creative innovators to jointly tackle wicked problems that don’t have an obvious solution. In most cases deep innovation and breakthrough improvements in performance are the result of an interdisciplinary effort, drawing on insights from disciplines that lie beyond the focus and capabilities of any single organisation. Whilst the level of automation is rising in many domains, human tacit knowledge, situational awareness, and the ability to develop trusted relationships amongst peers and with patients are critical elements of optimal service delivery. 

The organisers encourage participants to submit concrete problem statements in advance and to bring along their culture and collaboration challenges for discussion with peers in Open Space. 

If your work relates to the healthcare sector, you are invited to register and attend.

Note, 26 November 2018: The results have been published on this page. If you work in the healthcare sector and would like to get involved, please email Jorn Bettin.

Learning how to ask good questions

The questions one is able to ask depend on one’s entire prior life experience, and the same constraint applies to one’s interpretation of the answers received and the resulting interactive flow of further questions and answers.

Similarly, the mental models one is able to draw on white boards and represent in other media, as part of answering questions and sharing of knowledge depend on one’s entire prior life experience.

These constraints hint at the value of cognitive and experiential diversity within teams and organisations.

In a world that is dominated by the linear format of spoken and written language, it may not be obvious that the human ability to ask valuable questions and to develop explicit abstract representations of advanced forms of deep knowledge is not dependent on linear representations.

It is no accident that all useful meeting rooms are equipped with a white board.

Knowledge recorded in artefacts such as stick charts from the Marshall Islands illustrates that written language is not a prerequisite for inventing powerful non-linear representations of knowledge that capture details that are impossible to convey efficiently and reliably in a linear stream of spoken or written words.

Such compact representations of knowledge also illustrate that humans have been aware of the limitations of linear representations for a long time. Otherwise we would have had no need to invent stick charts or any of the other non-linear representations that we make use of in our mental worlds, which find their way into works of art and artistic performance, into widely used visual iconography, into the visual notations used in various mathematical theories, and into the ever growing pool of digitised versions of all of the above.

The MODA + MODE meta paradigm builds on these insights and offers a powerful set of transdisciplinary thinking tools that assist organisations in avoiding the trappings of single paradigm approaches.

Creating safe open spaces within your organisation

By attending the quarterly CIIC workshops you can observe and contribute to open space in the public domain, share experiences with creative and neurodivergent people, and learn about critical thinking tools that can assist your organisation to imagine and realise ideas that are incompatible with busyness as usual.


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Towards human scale societies

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In the September CIIC workshop in Auckland we discussed the effects of anthropocentrism, and we concluded by compiling a set of assumptions that may assist in reducing anthropocentric bias and in developing approaches for re-framing ecological collapse and climate breakdown into an opportunity for reinventing the foundations of civilisation:

  1. People are empathetic
  2. Given the level of automation of manual labour and given our technological capabilities, we have the time to implement good ideas
  3. Knowledge and scientific understanding is valuable and worthwhile preserving
  4. Humans have individual agency
  5. Exerting power over others is not acceptable
  6. Non-hierarchical competency networks learn faster than hierarchical organisations
  7. In a competency network human efforts can be coordinated via an advice process
  8. Human economies are best conceived as closed-loop zero-waste systems, and human progress can be measured in terms of improvements in waste metrics
  9. The value of knowledge is maximised by making it freely available for validation and use
  10. Most people try to do the best possible thing given their circumstances

Perhaps even the word civilisation is counter-productive when attempting to reduce anthropocentric bias. Perhaps it is more appropriate to define the goal as (re)discovering the foundations for human scale societies.

Exploring new cultural terrain

Whilst the latest IPCC report has made a few waves in the mainstream media, the cultural inertia maintained via the hierarchical structure of most human organisations / institutions stands in the way of any timely process of organisational learning.

However, in a world of more than 7 billion people it is easy to underestimate the number of individuals and emerging organisations on the fringes of mainstream society that have already embarked on entirely new trajectories, leaving behind obsolete ideologies and simplistic economic dogma.

The discussions, interviews, and talks below illustrate a number of individual and collective trajectories that explore new terrain and that generate learning resources that are available to all of us. Each one of these trajectories covers a complementary aspect of the current “version” of the Anthropocene, and only in combination do they allow a listener who is not an expert in all the aspects of  the Anthropocene (no one can possibly be) to grasp the essence of the current dynamics unfolding in the biosphere:

Joe Brewer and Daniel Thorson : State of the Collapse

Joe Brewer was one of the organisers of the inaugural Cultural Evolution Conference in 2017. The interview above covers a lot of ground:

  • Shifting from an anthropocentric lens to a living systems lens
  • Recognising the various time and spatial scales of the process of collapse around us
  • Learning to value diversity via learning to grieve for the loss of diversity
  • Creating human-scale learning organisations that are capable of reinventing the foundations of civilisation

The questions that this interview does not cover relate to languages and techniques for sharing and preserving valuable knowledge. These questions become important over the longer term (decades, centuries and longer) to prevent the re-emergence of pop cultures, personality cults and other social diseases that have led to the current state of the planetary ecosystem and to learning disabled human societies.

Brad Katsuyama : The Stock Market had become an Illusion

This short talk will be useful to those who are unfamiliar with the myopic lens of financial economics – and also to those who are still convinced that whilst capitalism may not be perfect, that it still is the best way for coordinating human economic endeavours.

The talk illustrates the logic of capital, which I like to refer to as busyness as usual.

It is interesting to note that the presenter recognises the absurdity of some of the recent technological developments, but remains completely stuck in the box of competitive economic dogma, and in his work is completely detached from the life generating and life sustaining processes that operate on our planet.

Julian Assange : The generation being born now is the last to be free

This interview with Julian Assange covers further aspects of the hyper-competitive logic that has spread through all societies reliant on financial capitalism. The interview covers:

  • The level of competition for control at all levels of scale
  • The role of corporations and nations as core institutions in the competitive game

The bleak outlook of someone in the position of Julian Assange is perfectly understandable. As a result his reasoning does not consider the innate (even if suppressed by cultural beliefs and norms) collaborative tendencies of humans. Julian’s analysis assumes a perpetuation of super-human scale (“civilisation scale”) institutions as the dominant form of human organisation, and it ignores the possibilities of organising collaboratively at human scale, within an emerging global network of open source knowledge.

Michael Buerk and panellists : Moral Maze : Climate Change

This panel discussion provides insight into the current levels of awareness within the population about ecosystem collapse and climate breakdown. It is also interesting to hear George Monbiot articulate the need for non-fungible metrics from the physical world (for example to limit the amount of air travel as an essential part of reducing carbon emissions) and highlight the danger of misleading imaginary financial metrics.

Chris Hedges: Corporate Totalitarianism: The End Game

This is a longer talk. The link above cuts straight to the end, which offers a great commentary on the logic of capital and “investment”. Chris Hedges reminds the audience of  the innate collaborative tendencies of humans and through his work illustrates how to develop trusted relationships.

One important aspect that Chris Hedges does not cover is the topic of human scale, and the option to organise collaboratively at human scale. The risks and consequences of all super human scale forms of human organisation are perhaps best described in Joseph Tainter’s analysis of patterns of civilisation collapse.

Onwards towards trusted collaboration at human scale

Join us for the next CIIC workshop on 8 December (Auckland) and 15 December (Melbourne)! CIIC provides a great opportunity for all participants to outline wicked problems they are wrestling with, and to obtain access to the perspectives and questions from others with complementary expertise and interests.


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Setting the [anthropo|s]cene

This 2-minute video clip provides a good visual introduction to the anthropocene and this 5-minute introduction by Noam Chomsky provides the corresponding historical and political backdrop.

The human capacity for self-delusion

This documentary on inequality provides an excellent illustration of the level of self-delusion in contemporary capitalistic societies. An economic dogma predicated on perpetual growth provides an environment that nurtures instead of curbs the latent human tendency to develop an arbitrary socially constructed sense of entitlement and to construct deep social power hierarchies. The social norms that operated in small stateless societies and in hunter gatherer societies prior to the advent of large scale civilisations and empires did exactly the opposite and curbed any attempts to gain power over others, and such norms allowed human primates to become much more successful than all other primates. The documentary above compares the lives of

  1. a successful capitalistic entrepreneur
  2. a wealth manager and investor who has inherited a family fortune
  3. an engineer employed by a modern corporation

The entrepreneur relies on his work ethic and the abstract logic of capital as a justification for his sense of entitlement. In this context capitalistic economic dogma serves as the mental anaesthetic that numbs the human capacity for empathy, and long working hours provide a quasi-rational explanation for the entitlement to the profits generated by the team. The entrepreneur reasons that workers only need to be compensated to the extent that they can survive comfortably, and that any further compensation would be unjustified. This logic implicitly justifies arbitrarily high profit payouts to the entrepreneur. It becomes obvious that power acts as a powerful neurochemical drug that induces a delusional justification for a stratified society.

The wealth manager is unfamiliar with any notion of work that is related to creativity and production in the physical world. His entire world is constructed in terms of abstract notions of capital and return generating investments. In this world success is measured exclusively by the ability to multiply capital via abstract investment vehicles. In his professional life the wealth manager does not interact with people who depend on a salary. As a result, even if he understands that the construction of money as interest bearing debt provides him with a quasi-foolproof mechanism for generating returns, he is completely unable to relate to the lives of people who are not endowed with captial.

The engineer realistically grasps his situation on the perpetual treadmill of work in the social hierarchy, and the inability to ever accumulate any significant amount of capital. He has no option but to continue to work as an employee and perceives himself as being comparatively fortunate relative to less skilled workers who have to raise families on even smaller budgets. The only way to break out of the treadmill would be by embarking on a similar path to the entrepreneur, by neglecting family and other social relations, and by fully internalising the capitalist dogma and developing a sense of entitlement to more than mere employees – who may work less, but not anywhere close to the difference in compensation between the capitalist and employees.

In absolute terms all three candidates featured in the documentary are able to live comfortable lives, but there are huge differences in the level of individual agency afforded to each one by the social system. Ultimately the wealth manager wields the most power, by a significant margin. As shown in the documentary, in order to further grow his company, the entrepreneur is dependent on external investors, and this turns him into a tool of abstract finance.

Thus, in our civilisation, and in all money based civilisations to date, human agency accumulates in the hands of those who focus exclusively on their role as investors – that is in the hands of those who are completely disconnected from the lives of 99.9% of people and from the creative and productive processes that ultimately sustain the anthropocene and life on this planet.

The ultimate danger of inequality manifests in two interdependent delusions:

  1. the level of self-delusion and disconnectedness from the biological world of those who live exclusively in the stratosphere of finance, as it has the capacity to induce entire civilisations to commit collective suicide
  2. the ubiquitous belief in the universal utility of money and markets as an effective vehicle for intelligent collective decision making

The fatal myth of economic fungibility

In this article and corresponding talk George Monbiot explains in very accessible language why the notion of capitalism, which powers all modern economies, is fatally flawed.

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Once we look beyond the simplistic and culturally biased lens of money, we can focus on domain specific non-fungible metrics from the physical and living biological world to quantify various forms of waste and inequality in terms of access to food, knowledge, resources, and energy.

Human life as perpetual busyness

The essence is that most innovation in bigger organisations is just Apes**t:

it is not about getting good new stuff into the market, but it is all about looking good and ticking the box during annual reports and annual events. It’s marketing, and that is fine, as long as you know it and don’t deceit [sic] yourself that you are doing the real thing.

In this Apes**t world, innovation is a Brand Of Smiling Young Successful Energetic Good Looking People reflecting sentiments of cool, hip, young, dynamic, agile, fast moving, energetic, smiling, fun, and rule breakers.

The future anthropocene is human scale

Our society devalues tacit knowledge and understanding, in the belief that once automated systems are in place we no longer need to understand and help each other. We have forgotten about the notion of human scale and we are wondering why we end up with #BullshitJobs.

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Human Scale : 1980

 

The concept of human scale is not new:

Greek architecture was related to human scale, and expressive of its essential structural elements, yet was perfected in the temples, the greatest achievements of Greek architects, as habitations for the deities.

We have “just” ignored human scale for the last few hundred years, including the cognitive strengths and limits that define human scale.

If we have any desire to make the anthropocene inhabitable for future generations of humans, we are well advised to re-orient everything we do and the ways in which we live toward the goal of human scale rather than the tired goal of perpetual growth, which never was anything else but a nicer word for social cancer.

Join us for the next CIIC workshop on 22 September (Auckland) and 29 September (Melbourne) to discuss the challenges of  the Anthropocene and of reinventing the foundations of civilisation.


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Reinventing the foundations of civilisation for life in the Anthropocene

Modern global civilisation has triggered the Anthropocene, a new geological era characterised by the traces of human generated patterns of activities within the biosphere.

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In 2017, as part of the CIIC unconference series, we have explored the essential ingredients of what humans refer to as civilisation, and how these ingredients have repeatedly and consistently led to the rise and collapse of complex societies. A growing number of researchers now conclude that global civilisation has put the planet on a rapid trajectory towards a “Hothouse Earth”:

Even if a Stabilized Earth pathway is achieved, humanity will face a turbulent road of rapid and profound changes and uncertainties on route to it—politically, socially, and environmentally—that challenge the resilience of human societies. Stabilized Earth will likely be warmer than any other time over the last 800,000 years at least (that is, warmer than at any other time in which fully modern humans have existed).

…the contemporary way of guiding development founded on theories, tools, and beliefs of gradual or incremental change, with a focus on economy efficiency, will likely not be adequate to cope with this trajectory. Thus, in addition to adaptation, increasing resilience will become a key strategy for navigating the future.

… Generic resilience-building strategies include developing insurance, buffers, redundancy, diversity, and other features of resilience that are critical for transforming human systems in the face of warming and possible surprise associated with tipping points. Features of such a strategy include

  1. maintenance of diversity, modularity, and redundancy;
  2. management of connectivity, openness, slow variables, and feedbacks;
  3. understanding social–ecological systems as complex adaptive systems, especially at the level of the Earth System as a whole;
  4. encouraging learning and experimentation; and
  5. broadening of participation and building of trust to promote polycentric governance systems.

… The Stabilized Earth trajectory requires deliberate management of humanity’s relationship with the rest of the Earth System if the world is to avoid crossing a planetary threshold. We suggest that a deep transformation based on a fundamental reorientation of human values, equity, behaviour, institutions, economies, and technologies is required. Even so, the pathway toward Stabilized Earth will involve considerable changes to the structure and functioning of the Earth System, suggesting that resilience-building strategies be given much higher priority than at present in decision making. Some signs are emerging that societies are initiating some of the necessary transformations. However, these transformations are still in initial stages, and the social/political tipping points that definitively move the current trajectory away from Hothouse Earth have not yet been crossed, while the door to the Stabilized Earth pathway may be rapidly closing.

Collapse, transformation and reframing

The deep transformations of human societies that are required to shift the trajectory of the Anthropocene towards a Stabilized Earth state will only be possible by widespread adoption of a non-linear language system like the MODA + MODE human lens and the MODA + MODE backbone principles to reason about resilience-building strategies from multiple perspectives, and by using the human lens to address the foundational flaw shared by all human civilisations to date: the proliferation of incomprehensible (super-human scale) systems, i.e. systems that are far too complex to be understandable by any human individual or even by any group of humans.

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Specifically, all human civilisations so far have featured super-human scale institutions (cities, empires, corporations, etc.), super-human scale use of metrics (money in the form of national and global currencies), and super-human scale use of linear language (languages used by millions and billions of people, including super-human scale software systems encoded in linear languages).

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Ignorance of the importance of human-scale and understandability is the common thread within the patterns of growth and collapse of all civilisations. This observation holds the key for constraining the search space for transformations that may allow us to shift the trajectory from a fatal addiction to economic “growth” towards a Stabilized Earth state.

If we can design human-scale institutions (being mindful of Dunbar’s number), human-scale metrics (local and domain specific currencies), and human-scale languages (including human-scale supporting technologies), we may be able to transform our civilisation into a distributed network of locally understandable and adaptable and globally resilient subsystems.

In a recent article on deep adaptation Jem Bendell talks about “the inevitability of societal collapse”, which leaves open a whole range of outcomes. Near term extinction is at one end of the spectrum, and the other end is described as follows:

… a collapse of this economic and social system, which does not necessarily mean a complete collapse of law, order, identity and values. Some regard that kind of collapse as offering a potential upside in bringing humanity to a post-consumerist way of life that would be more conscious of relationships between people and nature. Some even argue that this reconnection with nature will generate hitherto unimaginable solutions to our predicament.

Jem Bendell closes with a very pragmatic conclusion:

… societies will experience disruptions to their basic functioning within less than ten years due to climate stress. Such disruptions include increased levels of malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict and war – and will not avoid affluent nations. This situation makes redundant the reformist approach to sustainable development and related fields of corporate sustainability that has underpinned the approach of many professionals. Instead, a new approach which explores how to reduce harm and not make matters worse is important to develop. In support of that challenging, and ultimately personal process, understanding a deep adaptation agenda may be useful.

In some parts of the world what is described above is already the day to day reality. Based on all we know today, we can expect more of these effects in more and more places over the coming years, and perhaps that should inform our thinking and our actions.

In my cautious optimism I am all for reframing “collapse” into “transformation”, but at a fundamental level, to enable human scale collaboration at eye level.

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For the next CIIC workshop in September we are encouraging submissions related to the Anthropocene and to the challenge of reinventing the foundations of civilisation.


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Creating human-scale learning organisations

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Progress in healthcare delivery and many other domains and industries is contingent on organisations that are capable of absorbing and learning from increasing volumes of data, and capable of integrating the resulting knowledge with the tacit domain expertise and contextual awareness of humans. This article introduces the notion of human scale technology to describe the characteristics that enable tacit knowledge and digitized explicit knowledge to flow between humans and software systems, and it elaborates the role that agent based formal semantic models and non-hierarchical governance structures can play in this context.

Introduction

In the healthcare sector for example, services are coordinated and delivered via medical practitioners, via specialised clinical staff and administrative staff, and via a growing number of supporting software systems. Whilst the level of automation is rising in many domains [1], human tacit knowledge, situational awareness, and the ability to develop trusted relationships amongst peers and with patients are critical elements of optimal service delivery. The overall confidence of patients in the healthcare delivery system is a function of the levels of trust in clinicians and in the systems and tools used by clinicians and patients.

1. Learning organisations

Feedback loops of information flows between agents are the atoms of organisational learning. The SECI (socialisation, externalisation, combination, internalisation) model [2][3] is a useful conceptual tool for extending the concept of continuous improvement into the realm of knowledge intensive organisations.

Concrete SECI knowledge flows can be visualised and formalised with the resources, events, and agents (REA) paradigm [4], leading to representations that are easily understandable by humans and at the same time easily processable by software tools, as illustrated in figure 1.

human lens - example
Figure 1. Extract from a visual semantic model expressed through the human lens

A national or regional healthcare delivery system is an example of one of the most complex systems operated by humans. Some aspects of such systems are the result of deliberate design, whereas most aspects are the result of cultural evolution under externally imposed constraints. The learning potential of human institutions is defined by the tacit knowledge of the people that are part of the institution, by the understandability and adaptability of the designed aspects of the institution (including policies and technological systems), and by external constraints that are imposed on the institution (in particular access to resources).

1.1. Complexity level 0

One of the simplest possible learning systems is a system of two agents a1 and a2 that can process three categories of events e1, e2, and e3 and store information about these events in a suitable information resource structure r:

  1. Agent a1 triggering event e1, and agent a2 storing information about the occurrence of e1 in r, replacing all prior stored information about events
  2. Agent a1 triggering event e2, and agent a2 storing information about the occurrence of e2 in r, replacing all prior stored information about events
  3. Agent a1 triggering event e3, and agent a2 responding with r – information about the stored event

The learning challenge at this level of complexity is limited to the error rates of the communication channel between the two agents.

1.2. Complexity level 1

A learning system of some complexity from the perspective of human cognitive limits is a system of two software agents that can process many different categories of events, store structured information about a large number of events, and respond to events in context specific ways [5][6].

1.3. Complexity level 2

A learning system of medium complexity from the perspective of human cognitive limits is a system of a human agent and a software agent that can process many different categories of events, remember both structured and unstructured information about a large number of events, and respond to events in context specific ways [7][8].

1.4. Complexity level 3

An example of a highly complex learning system is a system of two human agents that can process a very broad range of different categories of events, remember both structured and unstructured information about these events, and respond to events in highly context specific ways.

1.5. Complexity level 4

Some of the most complex learning systems involve multiple groups of human agents, and all the interactions between these groups and within these groups. Such learning systems can only be understood by introducing viewpoints, perspectives, and agent motivations as first class modelling concepts [9][10][11].

1.6. Complexity level 5

The most complex learning systems involve multiple groups of human and software agents, including software agents that perform above human cognitive limits, and all the interactions between these groups and within these groups. Such learning systems can only be understood if software agents are able to make their knowledge accessible in human scale representations that respect human cognitive limits [12].

2. Agent based modelling

As highlighted by the SECI cycle, knowledge within an institution accumulates in two places: within the heads of people (tacit), and within knowledge artefacts and software systems (explicit). The MODA + MODE meta paradigm [13][14] is concerned with supporting the SECI cycle with transdisciplinary cultural practices and tools. The core of MODA + MODE consists of two parts:

  1. A set of 26 backbone principles (thinking tools) for creating learning organisations and understandable systems that transcend established discipline boundaries.
  2. The human lens, which is a metalanguage for describing the semantics of complex system behaviour at all levels of scale.

The categories of the human lens are invariant across cultures, space, and time, and hence they are suitable structural elements of a metalanguage for specifications of formal domain specific languages [5] in a multi-agent context, which are needed to formalise the descriptions of systems at complexity levels 4 and 5.

3. Human scale technologies

For at least two decades now software developers and their employers have neglected the role of understandability for humans. The result is a web of technological dependencies that no one understands and that cannot easily be analysed in terms of potential risks [15][16].

The risks associated with opaque systems are not limited to classical software systems. Artificially intelligent (AI) systems, and the way in which they are currently designed, further grow the web of dependencies, complete with naïve and simplistic assumptions about human nature and economics baked in [17].

Human scale computing [18] can be understood as the elaboration of the role of cognitive characteristics of humans within ergonomics. Human cognitive limits must become a primary concern in the design of human institutions and technologies [12], in much the same way that human scale physical dimensions and characteristics have shaped the discipline of ergonomics.

In an increasingly software and data intensive human world the objective of human scale computing is to improve communication and collaboration:

  1. between humans,
  2. between humans and software systems,
  3. and between software systems.

Our current technologies and communication tools hardly meet any of the human scale computing criteria to a satisfactory level. I believe that the human lens is an appropriate foundation for further work towards human scale computing.

4. Organisational structures

All effective approaches for continuous improvement [19] (such as Kaizen, Toyota Production System, Waigaya, etc.) and innovation (Open Space [20], Manifesto for Agile Software Development, collaborative design, etc.) share one noteworthy common principle:

The belief in the existence and relevance of social hierarchies must be suspended

This observation is backed up by evidence from thousands of organisations that strive to improve or establish a culture of innovation. By definition, hierarchies confer power on specific groups and individuals, with immediate effects on the ability of a group to learn and adapt to a changing environment. Any form of hierarchy or power indicates dampened feedback loops. Power can be understood as the privilege of not needing to learn.

Research of highly competitive Western cultures [21] demonstrates that the social game known as capitalistic economics is a game of luck. Within that game, success has nothing to do with value creation for society and everything to do with social manipulation skills and lack of empathy [22][23][24].

As long as our economic paradigm rewards social gaming, individuals can improve their odds of success by adopting psychopathic behavioural patterns, and by claiming and taking credit for the work of others. Depending on one’s level of empathy, beyond the façade of social success, mental health suffers more or less in the process.

An alternative approach is for a team to agree on non-conventional measures of success, and to work together as a collaborative team to share knowledge, resources, opportunities and success, and by removing all forms of in-group competition and hierarchical structures, to shift the odds for an entire group of people. Given the level of unproductive in-group competition in hierarchical teams [25], non-hierarchical teams have a clear collaborative edge and are well positioned to thrive [26].

The team approach is better for human mental and physical health [27], and it also allows a group to be more selective in terms of where to look for opportunities and how to contribute to society. Problems with hierarchical forms of organisation result from cultural inertia [28] and from the extent to which humans are culturally programmable [29][30].

5. Competency networks

The competency network within the organisation is the union of all the multi-dimensional domain-specific competency rankings that individuals allocate to the other members within the group [31]. It is the only social structure that directly supports the purpose of an organisation.

The existence of competency networks contradicts the simplistic claim that a lack of hierarchy leads to chaos and dysfunction. However, removal of an established hierarchy does not automatically result in a well-oiled competency network. Cultural inertia [28] can keep fear, mistrust, and in-group competition alive, and easily leads to the emergence of new oppressive hierarchical structures.

All healthy and resilient institutions have a well-functioning competency network [26][32]. A good way to understand competency networks is via the notion of trustworthiness and the nurturing and maintenance of trusted relationships [33].

A competency network is the graph of experience-based pair-wise trustworthiness ratings in relation to various domains between the members of a group.

The trustworthiness ratings in a competency network are tied to specific pairs of individuals, and by definition they are not directly transferable and never aggregated into any global ranking. The notion of competency networks is inspired by the correlation between software system structures and the communication patterns between human software developers observed by Mel Conway in 1967 [34].

6. Conclusion

The real opportunity for human society and human organisations lies not in the invention of ever “smarter” forms of in-group competition, but in the recognition of human cognitive limits, and in the recognition of the extreme value that resides in competency networks.

For the first time, the age of digital networks enables us to construct cognitive assistants that help us to nurture and maintain globally distributed human scale competency networks – networks of mutual trust. It is time to tap into this potential and to combine it with the potential of zero-marginal cost [35] global communication and collaboration.

All successful non-hierarchical organisations replace management hierarchies with a simple advice process [26] that establishes the vital feedback loops that enable the organisation to learn and adapt in a timely manner, even in a highly dynamic context.

References

  1. Moreno-Conde A, et al. Clinical information modeling processes for semantic interoperability of electronic health records: systematic review and inductive analysis. J Am Med Inform Assoc, Oxford University Press, 2015;22: pp. 925–934.
  2. Takeuchi, Nonaka, The New Product Development Game [Internet], Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/1986/01/the-new-new-productdevelopment-game, 1986.
  3. Nonaka, Toyama, Hirata, Managing Flow: A Process Theory of the Knowledge-Based Firm, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
  4. Hruby P., Model-Driven Design Using Business Patterns, Springer, 2006.
  5. Bettin J. and Clark T., Advanced modelling made simple with the Gmodel metalanguage. Proceedings of the First International Workshop on Model-Driven Interoperability, ACM, 2010; pp. 79-88.
  6. Bettin J. and Clark T., Gmodel, a language for modular meta modelling. In Australian Software Engineering Conference, KISS Workshop, 2009.
  7. Murray J.H., Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice, MIT Press, 2011.
  8. The potential and limits of clinical decision support systems, CIIC unConference [Internet]. Auckland, Sept 2016: https://ciic.s23m.com/expected-results/ciic-3-september-2016-auckland/.
  9. Senge P.M., The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, Currency, 1990.
  10. Neurodiversity – The Core of Creativity, CIIC unConference [Internet]. Auckland, December 2016: https://ciic.s23m.com/expected-results/ciic-3-december-2016-auckland/.
  11. Design and development of tools for effective self-care, CIIC unConference [Internet]. Auckland, March 2016: https://ciic.s23m.com/expected-results/ciic-5-march-2016-auckland/ .
  12. The essence of humanity: interaction and collaboration of humans and intelligent machines, CIIC unConference [Internet]. Auckland, Sept 2017: https://ciic.s23m.com/expected-results/ciic-16-september-2017-auckland/.
  13. Bettin J., Model Oriented Domain Analysis & Engineering, Thinking Tools for Interdisciplinary Research, Design, and Engineering, CIIC Blog [Internet]. Auckland, August 2017: https://coininco.files.wordpress.com/2017/08/moda-and-mode-lenses-and-principles.pdf.
  14. Bettin J., Model Oriented Domain Analysis & Engineering. Domain Engineering Product Lines, Languages, and Conceptual Models. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer Verlag, 2013; pp. 263-290.
  15. Foote B., Yoder J., Big Ball of Mud, Fourth Conference on Patterns Languages of Programs, Monticello, Illinois, 1997.
  16. Bettin J., Software, Engineering, Artefacts, Language [Internet]. Proceedings of the SEMAT (Software Engineering Method and Theory) Workshop Zurich, March 2010: http://semat.org/proceedings-of-the-semat-zurich-workshop .
  17. O’Neil C., Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, Crown, 2016.
  18. Human scale computing, CIIC unConference [Internet]. Auckland, June 2017: https://ciic.s23m.com/expected-results/ciic-3-june-2017-auckland/
  19. Deming W. E., Out of the Crisis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1982.
  20. Owen H., Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008.
  21. Pluchino A., Biondoy A. E., Rapisardaz A., Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure, arXiv:1802.07068v2 [physics.soc-ph], February 2018.
  22. Babiak P., Hare R., Snakes in suits: When psychopaths go to work, Harper Business, 2006.
  23. Long S., The perverse organisation and its deadly sins, Karnac Books , 2008.
  24. Long S., Socioanalytic methods – Discovering the hidden in organisations and social systems, Routledge, 2013.
  25. Graeber D., Bullshit Jobs : A Theory, Penguin, 2018.
  26. Laloux F., Reinventing Organizations, Nelson Parker, 2014.
  27. Bowles S., Gintis H., A Cooperative Species, Princeton University Press, 2011.
  28. Kegan R., Laskow Lahey L., Immunity to change – How to overcome and unlock the potential in yourself and your organisation, Harvard Business Review Press, 2009.
  29. Tomasello M., The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, Harvard University Press, 1999.
  30. Girard P., Pavlov V., Wilson M. C., Belief diffusion in social networks [Internet]. University of Auckland, 2015 : https://www.cs.auckland.ac.nz/~mcw/Research/Outputs/GPW2015.pdf.
  31. Bettin J, Designing filtering, trust building, thinking, and learning tools for distributed high-performance teams, Proceedings of the HINZ Conference Rotorua, November 2017.
  32. Wilson D. S., Does Altruism Exist?, Yale University Press, 2015.
  33. Bettin J, Elliffe M., Improving Interoperability and Trustworthiness of Healthcare Data Repositories. Proceedings of the HINZ Conference Auckland, November 2016.
  34. Conway M, Conway’s Law, 1967 : http://melconway.com/Home/Conways_Law.html.
  35. Rifkin J. The Zero Marginal Cost Society. St Martin’s Press, 2013.

 


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Drop the mask to create collaborative edges

Drop-the-mask

Human societies are characterised by abstract group identities, from local communities, to favourite sports teams, employers, professions, social class, languages, dialects, tribes, countries, online groups, brand loyalty, etc.

Every identifiable group identity is characterised by specific behavioural cultural norms, only some of which are explicitly stated and acknowledged. People who identify with a group are expected to conform with the explicit and implicit behavioural code.

What is only rarely talked about in mainstream society is the effort that it takes individuals to conform to a multitude of group identities, especially if the social norms associated with different identities are incompatible, and to some extent contradict each other.

Autistic people, who do not subconsciously pick up implicit social norms and the meaning of non verbal social signals are acutely aware of the mental effort needed to conform to social norms and of the inconsistencies and conflicts between various norms. As a result, autistic people are much less motivated to subscribe to any group identity, and experience any group demands for conformance with arbitrary rules that serve no obvious purpose (other than a confirmation of identity) as a significant mental burden.

The masking that goes hand in hand with attempts to comply with arbitrary and often implicit social norms is increasingly recognised by the autistic community as a key reason for autistic burn-out and suicide. However, trends in mental health statistics in the wider population hint at a problem far beyond the autistic community.

It is well established that growing levels of social inequality correlate with a rise in mental health issues, and the root cause may well relate to the formation of increasingly absurd group identities and associated signals of social status that make it acceptable to exclude the less fortunate. Research by anthropologist David Graeber confirms that masking also takes a significant toll on those who copy and comply with social norms without any conscious effort:

“Those who work bullshit jobs are often surrounded by honor and prestige; they are respected as professionals, well paid, and treated as high achievers—as the sort of people who can be justly proud of what they do. Yet secretly they are aware that they have achieved nothing; they feel they have done nothing to earn the consumer toys with which they fill their lives; they feel it’s all based on a lie—as, indeed, it is.”

The last 100 years can be described as the age of advertising and marketing, which is fuelled by industrialised production of group identities – think brands, and by in-group competition – think financial capitalism. From evolutionary biology we know that in-group competition has negative survival value – it is the opposite of intelligent behaviour.  It seems that this insight is finally filtering through to the social world of busyness as usual.

Especially at work, it is time to drop the mask

A couple of weeks ago, as part of Techweek NZ, I  reflected on the insights gathered by the CIIC community over the last three years, and talked about the challenges that transcend the established silos of industry, government and academia. The discussions with audiences in Auckland, Tauranga, Wellington, and Christchurch confirmed that it is time to shift from a culture of sick busyness to an appreciation of the value of life. You can watch the synopsis of a corresponding webinar below.

In New Zealand we can read about shocking mental health statistics every week, and we have significant problems with workplace bullying in the healthcare sector and in other industries.

Advanced automation gives us the choice between imagining, creating, and living in cruel worlds and imagining, creating, and living in compassionate worlds.

We have a choice!

Inclusive culture is minimalistic. Adopting a small backbone of explicit first principles that have a track record of encouraging trust building and learning helps.

The CIIC community is looking forward to your perspectives and insights on human, non-human, and ecosystem health.

Join us on 9 June and on 16 June 2018 in open space to explore the challenges and elements of potential solutions at AUT Colab in Auckland and at RMIT in Melbourne. At each workshop we discuss one or more wicked problems that have been submitted by participants.


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