In the November 28th 1969 issue of Science magazine, the eminent American biophysicist John R Platt wrote these words:
There is only one crisis in the world. It is the crisis of transformation. We are undergoing a great historical transition to new levels of technological power all over the world... What, finally, makes all of our crises still more dangerous is that they are now coming on top of each other - a crisis of crises. It has now become urgent for us to mobilize all our intelligence to solve these problems. If we could learn how to manage these new powers and problems in the next few years without killing ourselves by our obsolete structures and behavior, we might be able to create new and more effective social structures that would last for many generations. We might be able to move into that new world of abundance and diversity and well-being for all mankind which technology has now made possible.
I often feel that I straddle two dissimilar ecospheres. Day after day I see the same people going about their lives, undertaking the same tasks, following the same routines, using the same infrastructure. On the other hand something novel, a fresh impulse, dances around the edge in what seems like another dimension altogether.
Each of these ecospheres is marked by its own distinctive energy. One centralised, overcast, encumbered by legacy. The other dispersed, networked, more agile. I see them both so clearly.
Most bureaucracies and corporations have been mesmerised by a form of capitalism that, once embraced within the context of modernity becomes rapacious. This mode of economic activity is driven by greed and an overwhelming need to compete for scarce resources. At the same time it is burdened by an obsessively unending quest for growth and the accumulation of wealth.
In so far as they are aware of the new post-capitalist upstart in their backyard, orthodox institutions seem decideldy uneasy. There is a justifiable logic to their anxiety. Peer production is disruptive to capitalism. For one thing it undermines the inviolability of competitive markets. And while it is implausible to think models of peer production could displace our deeply entrenched capitalist tendencies in the near future, they are certainly making commons the more compelling impulse for activities generating financial and social value.
This is why the social economy is viewed with such trepidation and suspicion by our current masters of the financial universe. Their doctrine depends upon the use of private labor to generate value, which is then seized by private corporations and sold in markets based on artificially contrived scarcity.
The social economy circumvents such capitalist constraints. It supports a paradigm based upon collaboration and access to an abundance of resources. Instead of allocating surplus value through the market or hierarchical systems, peer production creates value through open, voluntary contributions, and massive mutual coordination.
It is clear that the majority of people and state institutions are unaware of this doppelganger in our lives. Each one of us occupies a here and now - familiar, mundane, yet so comfortable that we remain totally oblivious to emerging epistemes - barely a glance away. In this case, however, popular awareness is imminent. The power of smart mobile devices, coupled with an innate desire to collaborate, are conspiring to erode industrial modes of production. As an alternative we are offered a social economy in which civic society is not just serviced by the government - industrial complex but is a productive powerhouse in its own right.
We are all achingly familiar with the tedium of our everyday ecosphere. Many of us experience it as a world of scarcity and injustice where rampant economic growth and wealth creation drive us almost to despair. Reportedly this is a world spinning out of control, where complacency is used as an excuse for unprincipled behaviour, and terrorism is blamed on anyone who has beliefs that differ from our own. A world in which corporate greed is excessive and corruption is rife. A world where fear and lies are routinely drafted to keep social order. A world in which we resort to using vicarious thrills and other distractions just to help keep us sane.
In this world there are many irresolvable problems. Some say it is no worse than it was a century ago. That we just notice the crime, the immorality and the injustice more than ever before. I beg to differ and worry that this world, much more than its façade, is in a state of decay and potential collapse.
But then I take immediate comfort in the grace and élan of the emergent ecosphere with its more benevolent and empathic protocols. Far from perfect, these new modes cradle us in hope for an expanded common wealth. It is a domain in which all life is sacred and where communities share and prosper in a spirit of transparent generosity and reciprocity. This is a domain in which Platt’s words of abundance, diversity and well being for all humanity are fast becoming the unadulterated impetus for social progress.
But these two ecospheres are not just about differing economic models. They offer different choices for humanity – each with its own distinct functions and moral authority. In many respects the alternative domain of “sufficiency within abundance” is already operating. Patchy perhaps. But presaging a shift to a healthier condition that will not be the paradigm-shattering doom-and-gloom disaster proclaimed by the proponents of “free” markets.
The potential relationships between these two ecospheres are not immediately apparent, far less fully understood. But two things are clear:
- In a globalised world these modes interact and cannot remain separate phenomena. Some degree of interaction is inevitable.
- We cannot expect a linear transition from a capitalist to a post-capitalist society and world-system. We are too heavily invested in capitalism.
So what can we expect? Currently these two ecospheres tend to be distinct genres - each with their own personae, values, functionalities, modes of production and transactional etiquettes. That is likely to persist for the time being. Many advocates of peer production expect their domain will continue to be shielded from the more exploitative elements of corporate capitalism. I find that a fairly tame proposition. Healthy coevolution would be my preference. But what would that entail?
The worst excesses of the capitalist model can be likened to coal in the annals of fossil fuels. Both are deadly to human health. But this is something we have only just begun to comprehend. So my hope is that an integration of these two ecospheres would start to temper the social harm and corrupt practices that have become ingrained within capitalism as it is practised. Industrial capitalism and peer production could yet fuse together in ways that would cleanse and restore health to the economic world-system – thereby generating more sustainable futures for the human family as a whole. With a few exceptions I doubt that such a vision is on most people’s radar.
There can be little doubt that those of us associated with peer production, open source practices, and the wealth of the commons, are being constrained in our desire for a more benign, post-capitalist future, by many whose success is inextricably hitched to the old growth and greed formulae of neoliberal economics underpinning modern capitalism. The capitalist use of language is symbolic of scarcity, fear, envy, and insecurity - while their beliefs and trappings prolong the tensions between private ownership and serfdom.
But such impediments are already beginning to fade. For our insights and collective knowledge are far greater than before. The symbolism of our language is more erudite and precise. Labour is becoming more flexible and fluid. We know what we are doing to our planet and each other far better than we appreciated in the swinging sixties. We also have tools, and processes for putting those tools to better use, that were not previously available. We are awakening from our slumber at last.
Yet what is especially disturbing is a realisation that we are probably no closer to avoiding a harmful end-game than we were when Platt wrote his article in 1969. Our wisdom has not kept pace with technological developments. It has not yet evolved to a level where we can collectively choose an alternative to that which currently persists.
I believe Platt was also wrong in one vital respect. The crisis to which he refers is not simply about societal transformation. What is clearer today than ever before is that the real emergency is twofold. Most certainly it is a lack of transformation. Of intentional coevolution. It is also a crisis caused by rampant competition in preference to collaboration.
The social structures and systems we fabricated in the past, many of which are still in use today, together with the symbolic language and tools that allowed them to function, were designed for an earlier era. An age where there were far fewer people on the planet. An age where travel was leisurely and where news took days or even weeks to spread from one place to another. An age where almost any well-educated young person could select the career they most wanted and be assured of employment in that field from graduation to retirement.
These structures have undergone rapid external metamorphoses - mostly from the impact of computer technology and its convergence with nanoscale materials, robotics and biotechnology. But at some stage we became complacent, failing to realise that the internal physiology of these structures was not keeping pace with their external appearance. They often looked different on the surface. Their exterior morphology had changed. But inside they remained the same as before in terms of one critical factor: they were never designed to evolve consciously with changing external conditions.
In other words the systems, structures, institutions and practices we fabricate and shape, frameworks that are increasingly ineffective because of their inability to adapt to changing conditions, are now shaping us in ways that were never envisaged or intended.
Think about that. While we continue to view, understand and explain “wicked” problems from within the outmoded belief memes informing old frameworks, any solutions will, of necessity, be captive to those memes. Thus, while at first glance our solutions may appear to have a novel, even revolutionary morphological impact, they are actually only tweaks to conventions applied from within the boundaries of orthodoxy. In many cases this practice of improvement and innovation from within the current episteme can actually be detrimental.
A good example of this phenomenon can be seen in some of the most notable and innovative contemporary business models - models that give the appearance of positive disruption but in practise still sustain the extractive and exploitative components of collaborative consumption. In the final analysis companies like Airbnb and Uber, for example, are toxic to social relationships. They extract value from our social exchanges and transactions but seldom reinvest in the trust and reciprocity that is common in social communities. This often results in considerable social precarity because private companies obtain benefits – as in skilled workers, networks, relationships, and software - for which they do not necessarily pay anything at all.
Given this knowledge, it stands to reason that if we wish to stop the more exploitative procedures to which we have so easily succumbed in order to preserve those things in life that are truly meaningful to us, the things we cherish and value above all else, then the continuous renewal of our world-system and its practices through purposeful change by design is an imperative. In terms of economics and production that means re-framing any such systemic reinvention(s) from one or more “post-capitalist” perspectives.
If genuine transformation only becomes possible when we can escape the traps of orthodox thinking, the issue then becomes one of assuring higher levels of consciousness are brought to bear within the processes of redesign and reinvention. At that stage a deep appreciation of contextual intelligence becomes critical - as does anticipatory foresight.
I am intrigued by four fundamentally different directional paths silently pulling humanity into alternative future states. These paths have richly entangled interdependencies that are neither discrete nor mutually exclusive:
- One possible path leads to extinction. This is not something we like to think about. It is deeply disturbing. Which does not make it any less real of course. Human life could be extinguished through the impulsive use of nuclear weapons, for example, or by a pestilence that simply wipes out the species across most of the planet. As far as we know human beings are the first and only species to possess the power for self-destruction on such a scale.
- Another path leads to involuntary yet intensive serfdom. Our tendency to combine hubris with indifference could well result in artificially intelligent (AI) robots servicing our needs up to a point where their intelligence surpasses our own. Even Stephen Hawking seems to be worried about the possibility for AI to go rogue. For technocrats like Raymond Kurzweil, though, such a future is not only probable but highly desirable and exhilarating. Kurzweil obviously does not envisage the same miserable end-game as Hawking does in that regard. An intriguing side-show within this scenario is the science-fiction synthesis of man and machine leading to the cloning of a new species.
- A third path is one of loss through escalating division and discord. Increased surveillance and repression of individuals by institutions of the state - of the kind we are consistently submitting to these days - are prosecuted until humans become so compliant they have no more freedom of action than social insects. We are already being unwittingly herded in this direction by ill-advised and crude reactions to issues like climate change, the refugee crisis, nation state antagonisms, organised crime and acts of terrorism.
- The fourth path is utopian by comparison. Here most people are content and at peace with themselves, while our society is in ecological balance with its environment. This is a world of unity and empathy - without war or unnecessary suffering. The problem with this scenario is that most of us want a comfortable life but do not have faith in it any longer as a viable possibility. It is too idealistic for most people to swallow. The human condition has battered us into doubting that escape is now possible.
But here is the real snag. Contemporary humans, with all our anxieties and inhibitions, our relative affluence yet fear of each other, our penchant for competition over cooperation, our love affair with materialism, and our mistrust of social change, almost certainly cannot survive the accelerating structural changes being wrought on us by relentless technological and economic growth. The human family will either be destroyed or liberated.
The thought of the present deteriorating into a vapid perdition most of us do not want cannot endure for much longer without some kind of antiphon emerging from sources that are increasingly awake to the dangers.
Of course only a Luddite would be foolish enough to suggest that new technologies per se are responsible for human conflict and other follies. It is not how we fashion our tools that matters, but the activities involved in using them. The current madness of Pokemon Go, for example, is probably nothing more than a harmless fad. But the deliberate misuse of technology by a technocratic elite that favours technological growth and gadgetry over finding solutions to humanity’s real needs - which are then neglected in service to an interminable cabaret of trivia - has made them an unbearable burden. Once again we are trapped in prisons of our own invention.
And so recovery and rescue, if that is what we want, can only emerge from transformational design which, in its generative state, becomes a form of conscious coevolution.
Our world-system depends upon healthy and productive interactions between the state, business and civic sectors, together with intelligently informed insights and responsible feedback from the media, to sustain and improve our quality of life. But at some point these critical relationships failed to alert us to a “perfect storm” of complications that were brewing.
We did not see that an explosion in the population meant more and more people would be spending their income on material goods. We did not see that rampant consumerism would put tremendous strain on systems that were never designed to cope with such pressures. We did not see that as more and more people began to fall into poverty, and fewer people owned the wealth produced by society, that tensions would worsen. We did not see that as these systems started failing we would begin to blame each other for the consequences. Nor did we see the alienation and disengagement from society of great numbers of people who could envisage little hope for themselves in a future where opportunities for advancement were in decline. The responsibility for all of this cannot be attributed to any single factor. But market economics, unbridled competiton, and the capitalist meme, must surely take their share of the blame.
The introduction of free market economic policies – particularly the mix of deregulated trade, privatisation, and fiscal austerity in the 1960’s - were largely responsible for shaping our interactions around two flawed tenets:
- Economic growth and the endless accumulation of wealth is a virtue in itself
- Competition for scarce resources is the most natural way to deliver such growth.
There are inherent problems with this formula – not the least being inequities resulting in an increasing gap between the poor and the well-to-do. Thus in the capitalist market system the role of governments is crucial – intervening on behalf of citizens in ways that allow more people to benefit than would otherwise be the case.
Competitive behaviour is a blight on relevance. But while collaboration is desirable, in fact vital in such a dynamically complex globalised world, existing state institutions are not geared up to collaborate nor to move rapidly. Indeed the fundamental concept underlying the activities of the modern nation state is one of healthy, albeit cautious, competition. This belief spills over into the functioning of international non-government enterprises - like the United Nations or World Trade Organization for example - institutions that even compete internally and with each other. It is therefore highly improbable they could implement strategies of reform or reinvention that would curtail or end their power and influence, even if they were capable – which they have proven many times not to be.
I do not suggest for one moment that such organisations are unaware of the problems facing humanity. On the contrary. Many NGOs routinely establish dedicated research teams to study the most wicked problems facing human life styles and their impacts. However, the value system ingrained within the upper echelons of these organisations commonly results in a distortion of the problems under investigation. These are frequently accompanied by lengthy justifications designed to prevent such research ever being implemented. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the IPCC’s regular reports on climate change offer clear indications that awareness does not necessarily lead to rapid or effective action.
What then? Revolution? War on terror? Massive change? Disruptive innovation? Violent civil disobedience? To some extent all these ideas (including even peaceful civil disobedience and the in-vogue notion of a grand transition) seem so very contentious - so locked into confrontational stereotypes. Quite apart from the high probability of failure in today’s complex world these expressions, and others possessing a similarly joyless impulse, hark back to the vocabulary of struggle, exclusion, discrimination and war. They use the language of apartheid - symbolising discord and fragmentation when what we really need is a dialectic of hope, unity and affiliation.
We cannot constantly go to war with each other in order to institute changes that make the world a better place for everyone. Nor can we keep plunging into aggravated conflict in the deluded belief that peace will emerge as a result. Yes, we need to decide on a new destination. Yes, we need to adjust to a new course. Yes, we need to find new meanings and tell new narratives. But together. If we can possibly avoid it nobody should be left behind. Alienation of one group, one political party, one nation, one ideology, or one religion, from the rest is unacceptable simply because it perpetuates today’s status quo and inevitably leads to further deterioration and the very real danger of collapse.
So let us rise above any cosmetic differences. Let us accept that my DNA is the same as yours - whether you are tanned, Muslim, conservative, a Head of State, an itinerant, smart, really stupid… Or just trying to live your life in the best possible way with the love and support of those closest to you.
Nor will blaming “the system” help. Although we may feel a deep sense of powerlessness in any system that does not meet its own ideals, or acts against our needs, any clash between the “system” and an enlightened public hell bent on activism is bound to make matters worse at some level – either immediately or down the track. Any public-versus-the-state venture could well end up destroying the technological base and social fabric needed to facilitate a better world. And it is certainly not the solution we are looking for if the desired outcome is a more empathically aware human family. So let us remain alert to that fact.
Far better the notion of a mindful uprising – an agenda intent on making the world work better for everyone - arising from a genuine understanding of how large, complex, social systems work and how they can be designed for enhanced effectiveness. The rules in such a manifesto would be simple enough:
- start with a forensic understanding of the whole system so as to locate the most critical design flaws – some might not be that obvious
- think small - intervene modestly at the most appropriate acupuncture point
- avoid instituting a massive insurgency that crashes and burns in the face of opposition
- ensure local relevance – solve our own problems first
- deploy the least disruptive change tactics – the more benign the better
- use a series of gentle nudges to the “system” rather than resort to a single massive change
- focus on shaping a world that works for everyone
- appeal directly to and engage with those affected negatively by the system.
The various emergencies and global crises we are experiencing are not always a direct result of systemic failure. It is true that some systems are collapsing under the sheer weight of a population approaching 7.4 billion. Others were simply designed that way. The idea of in-built obsolescence, for example, was deliberately introduced by Alfred Sloan into the manufacturing process as a way of generating long-term sales volumes by shortening the replacement cycle.
Systems crafted by humans can only produce what we intend for them to produce. If the systems we have in place generate unwanted or unforeseen consequences then we must change the design. If the systems we have inherited constrain us from taking the most effective action then that too is a design flaw. Planned obsolescence will not be eradicated until we are prepared to design for long-term sustainability. Likewise, famine, pollution, over-population, corruption and terrorism, will always be with us until we redesign the systems by removing the constraints that allow these things to occur. Transformation begins with design but does not end there.
I have no doubt that bottled up in each of us is a host of suppressed anxieties we feel about our career, our children’s future, our chances of survival, and the disappointment that flows from feeling trapped and powerless in an uncaring world. Many young people in particular are alienated in one way or another from themselves and from others. This alienation runs deep. It can be intensely unsettling - leading to apathy and a sense of emptiness and futility. In this state we become afraid of our own shadow. Frightened of facing up to our humanity, and unable to trust others, we play games instead.
If this were not serious enough in terms of individuals it is positively alarming at a societal level as it prevents us mobilising to the extent that is needed to transform ourselves and our systems. This is why we vainly cry out for leadership. Usually all we hear these days are the reverberations of such pleas vanishing into a void of incomprehension.
If nothing less than the transformation of human nature is the objective then leadership is certainly critical. By this I do not mean the wholesale restructuring of our social institutions that many call for. That can wait. Nor am I referring to the hollow practices, accompanied by weasel words, effected by individual executives, and that masquerades as leadership in so many of our enterprises.
On the contrary I am referring more to a shared moral impulse - an unwavering integrity that enables wise and mature engagement, the allocation of sufficient intellectual resources, and responsible, rapid, collective decision-making – that we need in order to shape the conditions needed for genuine transformation to occur.
This kind of liberating experience and praxis cannot be mandated. Nor can it be imposed from above. Much will depend on the shifting of investment capital from capitalist schemes to more socially collaborative, value-generating modes of production - along with adequate legal means of protecting these from private appropriation.
There are also far-reaching implications in all of this for governments and the apparatus of provisioning for citizens. When the post-capital economy becomes critical to social well-being the state must begin to perceive itself as a facilitator of individual self-sufficiency, rather than an administrative control mechanism or a mere service-provider. This is far removed from from today’s conventional market-state functionalities.
Of course, new forms of social collaboration such as peer production do not necessarily resolve ingrained injustices in the current world-system - especially those involving race or gender, for example. But they are pioneering a more equitable system of value-creation that transcends the exploitative logics underpinning conventional capitalism. This approach is far more likely to open up new opportunities for social tolerance and empathy than our current system, which is invested in pitting insurrectionary social movements against each other.
In order to maintain the benefits offered by these new approaches we must ensure that in future our most life-critical systems are designed in ways where they are always capable of consciously adapting to changing contextual conditions. In the final analysis I suspect nothing less than the total application of our collective intelligence to these matters matter will be adequate. And as always the deeper question is whether we are wise enough to survive our own success – either by transcending or reinventing those systems that no longer adequately service our needs.
This essay was inspired by the work of my good friend Michel Bauwens - founder of the Peer-2-Peer Foundation and the world's foremost thought-leader in terms of peer production and the commons as a social economy - from whom I have taken ideas and their expression as well as the occasional direct quote from his various writings and lectures.