And here is a write-up that Rob O'Grady just sent in, responding to some questions Jim asked, which I didn't answer as fully as I should have during the podcast.
Self-organizing Systems – Reflections on 150 Strong: A Pathway to a Different Future
Nature is one great network of self-organizing systems. Always there is a tendency towards equilibrium. The antelopes that are slow and dull-witted are culled by the lions while the quick and sharp-witted ones survive to propagate the species. Bare rock erupted from volcanoes can become densely forested in less than a thousand years.
We might fret about climate change, but in a few million years the oceans and the organisms they contain will absorb the excess carbon we are venting into the atmosphere and plate tectonics will once again sequester it in the Earth’s crust.
There is beauty in these systems. They are efficient, and in this respect Nature, with its dynamic, constant rebalancing, serves as a model.
One essential feature of self-organizing systems is that they incorporate feedback loops. Good ideas and actions are reinforced positively while bad ones are attenuated and suppressed. New ideas pass spontaneously from one person to another and evolve, taking on a life of their own.
The internet, for all its faults, is a great enabler of this process. Feedback is instant, varied and to the point. Comments, blogs, videos, Facebook posts, review sites and tweets are all at hand for purveyors of feedback to pump, dump, or contribute. Information is shared instantly and it is a vast unregulated exposer and record-keeper, a sieve for detritus and a great expander and amplifier for the few accidental gems.
In publishing 150 Strong: A Pathway to a Different Future it was interesting to see what has resonated with the readers, and to examine some of the themes in the feedback they have given.
One line of comment is that it all sounds a bit far-fetched: “Are we to revert to tribalism?”, “Who decides on the groups of 150?”, “Compassion as a motivating force: what madness is that?”
To give a general response to this line of questioning: It is not the scale of the problem that needs to be considered, but the essence of the problem. A problem cannot be solved by doing more of what caused it, and the first step toward an alternative future is to establish a sound framework of understanding. It is at this point that the potential for a solution is created.
Capitalism has worked very well up to a point because it is largely a self-organizing system. Yes, banking relationships, trade deals, legal frameworks and security arrangements make a big difference, but in general if you are a good and efficient producer of goods and services you make money and thrive, while if you are inefficient and produce work of poor quality you are eliminated. There is a positive incentive to work well built into the system, because doing so is linked with obtaining the means of survival.
The role of the operative incentive structure in determining the outcome—defined as the reconciling force—is the most important theme of this book. Its importance cannot be underestimated. In the capitalist system the conflict between limited resources and competing enterprises is reconciled by profit. If you fail to comply with the imperative to make a profit your enterprise is eliminated. The negative consequences of this dynamic are that the environment eventually becomes degraded, resources are consumed wastefully and people become defined by their usefulness as units of labor. The existence of a unit of labor is a precarious one for the vast majority, and this results in alienation and societal dysfunction. Imposing a layer of government rules and regulations on top of the profit-driven system can help to a certain extent, but past a certain point this approach becomes clumsy and ineffective.
The alternative reconciling force proposed in 150 Strong is the moderating force of group interaction. Being a social species, this is something we all know about instinctually. All but the most extreme loners have some framework of belonging that is important to their identity and gives meaning to their lives. Recognition, compassion and mutual respect are aspirational factors that serve as the glue in achieving social cohesion. The instinctual urge to maintain networks of belonging is a very powerful unifying force—often much stronger than any individual urge or ambition. Alienation results in suffering for most of us, and because they provide a way to avoid it, personal networks of support are very important, both emotionally and practically. Any good incentive system must include aspects of both the carrot and the stick, and here shame, dishonor and the threat of exclusion from a network of belonging act as the stick, providing a mechanism for holding individual behavior in check.
Overt tribalism may not be a prominent feature of modern industrialized society, but there are numerous pseudo-tribes of extended family, workmates who know and care for each other, sports fans, church groups, motorcycle gangs, music fans… all of which are systems of mutual recognition and belonging. The instinct for affiliation and fitting in is so strong in us that this is a very strong generator of meaningful action.
For a group to become truly strong, there needs to occur some shared struggle to bond them together. The greater the struggle the greater the bond, even to the point where people will give up their lives for the welfare of their group and live on in the group’s communal memory as heroes.
In considering how the 150 Strong model might be applied, here are three things to consider.
1. It is a wonder that things hang together as well as they do now. How do we, being a self-interested, weak, greedy, lazy, depressed, anxious lot, who elect dunces for leaders, manage to keep this whole show running? The answer probably has a lot to do with the fact that we tend to swing in behind common causes. Despite the idea that we are working for individual gain in the capitalist model, more often than not most of us are working to achieve something for the common good.
2. We will eventually have no choice but to arrange our lives differently, and so we have no need to worry about an implementation plan. Applying the 150 Strong model in this respect can be considered as a capacity-building measure for future resilience.
3. We don’t need to go out of our way to implement it. It fits well with ordinary life.
The 150 Strong model is a model of self-organization that promotes self-regulation. It is not possible to legislate to downsize and descale the cumbersome institutions that are so insensitive to our current economic and environmental problems. But it is possible to start replacing them with something else—by making personal choices. It may also be possible for us to win a measure of independence from some of the social hierarchies over which we have some measure of control.
Cultures are fundamentally self-organizing systems. The tendency of individual networks to optimally be around 150 people, as described by Robin Dunbar, are not coincident with the size of the social groups that human being can assemble, however. Even hunter-gatherers have individual networks that connect them with people - friends and family and more casual acquaintances - many of whom they might only see only very occasionally. In every Kua camp I visited, my interviews turned up very limited overlap between the closest friends, for example of a husband and his wife, of sets of siblings or cousins, and of parents and their adult children. So a guy knew some of the people in his brother’s network, but some of those people never made much effort to visit or camp with him if his brother was not present. This guy would, of course have friends who were only nodding acquaintances with one another and the brother. As for relatives, I got tired of hear about the estrangements among siblings leading to tearful reconciliations after months or even years, all because of some hissy fit over a love affair or a personal slight.
In other words, people’s networks were spread all over the map, individual networks did not result in tight little clumps of 150ish people all hanging out together for a lifetime. You were lucky if any two camps ever contained exactly the same bunch of households as when you first met (some of) them.
What this means is that you have to combine that 150 person network with the concept of six degrees of separation. Each friend or relative knows people you don’t know, and those people know people who know people who know people - when you get to the end of that chain any joke you told to your second cousin one day might end up repeated to somebody who never heard of you, a thousand miles from where you actually told the original joke.
What works for jokes also works for all other kinds of ideas, information, skills, and stories. These networks, even in the Kalahari, crossed language barriers with ease (because people tend to find multilingualism pretty easy if they start as kids), and create a huge interconnect web that could cover a whole continent, in fact one such web did, until a few hundred years ago, in Australia.
The original world wide web?
Why would humans be like this? I suggest this is because our brains evolved in an environment where conserved, learned, rearranged and shared information was a critical survival mechanism. Our brains and capacity for language evolved to let each human population draw upon the widest diversity of information, because those that live on in us today were the ones who managed to get through various really awful times. with higher levels of both novel - and older (proven) - skills and technology, when a culture was forced to change, it could best self-organize these changes if there was a lot of diversity to begin with. Without accumulation and interconnection, every single culture was more vulnerable.
And now, guys, it seems to me that it is STILL the critical survival mechanism. In the coming messy decades, our cultures will self-organize strategies for survival. We can watch it happen, of course. We see it in the transmission of information about climate change, about soil erosion, about poverty, about resource limitations. The Peak Oil forums are example of culture self-organizing, so was Occupy Wallstreet, and Idle-no-more. For that matter, so is the Arab Spring, the anti-GMO movement,. the American revolution, the French revolution, and colonialism. So are all the networks emerging on Facebook. For that matter, so is the swell of support for political candidates during the present run-up to the US election.
What we have as a dominant economic system right now is not "capitalism" but a sort of financial dinosaurism.
Past a certain size organisations stop competing for efficient production/distribution of goods-&-services, start competing mainly on how much weight they have for crushing the smaller concerns, how much of the flow of disconnected claims on economic wealth they can suck out of any organisation still functioning & through their own bloated, undead rackets. Rather than to compete with one another in any sense, the larger concerns typically find it more profitable to form alliances for sucking more out. Governments have turned out more suited to being coopted & used as a weapon than they ever were for regulating anything, keeping the game honest or functional -- and if a government ever catches anybody for anything, the culprit was probably small fry and/or had pissed off his fellow miscreants in some other way.
On a small scale, business competition works great for keeping prices down -- which is why people actually involved in it benefit enormously if they can form agreements, unions, professional organisations, and/or licensing requirements to minimize actual competition, why the winners generally turn out better at cooperating with each other than at conflict. (If only they still thought there was any reason to cooperate with all us poorschmucks!)
I first heard about the Dumbar number from Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point". It seems to me that the most interesting feature of the concept is that 150 approximates an upper limit to the development of "transactive memory" in groups. Transactive Memory is a concept introduced in 1986 by University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Wegner which is particularly informative regarding the reasons why online social networks appear to have filled such an important function in society. Wegner argues that when people know each other well, they create an implicit joint memory system - a transactive memory system - which is based on an understanding about who is best suited to remember what kinds of things. We don’t store what we remember only in our brain. We use external aids (index card files etc.) and especially other people. Couples do this automatically. “Relationship development is often understood as a process of mutual self-disclosure” he writes in Transactive Memory: A Contemporary Analysis of the Group Mind. “Although it is probably more romantic to cast this process as one of interpersonal revelation and acceptance, it can also be appreciated as a necessary precursor to transactive memory.” A transactive memory system is a system through which groups collectively encode, store, and retrieve knowledge. The decisive component in the formation of transactive memory is sharing specific information regarding team members' knowledge and domains of expertise, which is achieved whether by interactions taking place during shared learning, or by any other means of information transformation. Wegner states: “When each person has group-acknowledged responsibility for particular tasks and facts, greater efficiency is inevitable. Each domain is handled by the fewest capable of doing so, and responsibility for the domains is continuous over time rather than intermittently assigned by circumstance.” Further, wikipedia on the subject states that “It has been found that transactive memory allows a quicker access to a larger amount of knowledge, improves information integration processes, improves decision making processes, and even influences the efficiency perception of teammates, their satisfaction and sense of identification with the team and the organization.”
In regards to the 5 stages and where the US is at...
I think the cultural collapse has already happened and the only thing obfuscating that fact is that financial and political collapse have yet to happen.
Nature is NOT "a model" of a self-organizing system. It IS the self-organizing of which we, and our utter cleverness (to notice/name "self-organizing") are a product.
Both ecosystems and cultures are self-organizing systems. We can create better understanding of both, and of ourselves, if our conceptual models of them reflect that.
Excellent post. I was at first skeptical of the notion of engineering communities of 150 but as explained here, such communities are always available to us should we want to participate in them and in most cases we already participate in them spontaneously with our friends and neighbors. David Graeber, in his book Debt, the first 5000 years talked about debt as the glue that holds communities together. Members of communities of 150 are all mutually indebted to each other. Erasing debt among members of a community by paying for services destroys community. If we give our services freely to our community, the recipients are indebted to us and we can therefore call on them to help us when we need their help. If we paid off our debt for services with money, we would now owe anything and our neighbors could not count on us for help. If we asked them for help, they would retort, "hire someone, I don't have time to help you." Graeber gave an example of women in an African community exchanging gifts. One woman gave a neighbor some fruit. The neighbor who received the fruit would later reciprocate with a gift of their own, say a few eggs. What was important in the exchange, was that gifts were never reciprocated in like manner, say by reciprocating with 3 oranges for a gift of 3 oranges. That would look like an attempt to pay off the gift in kind and an attempt to cancel a debt. The whole point of exchanging gifts in a community of 150 would be to maintain the web of mutual indebtedness by keeping who owes who what ambiguous.
What this post made apparent to me is that community building is a natural human instinct. At our farmer's market, my wife bought some strawberries at one farm stand. When we went to another farmer to look for some garlic, my wife offered the farmer some strawberries. When we tried to pay for the garlic, the farmer waved off our money. The exchange of value was not equal but kindness was exchanged for kindness and a bond was formed. We spoke to another farmer who told us that her mother maintains a one acre plot. She feeds her own family with the vegetables and gives the surplus away to friends and neighbors, to her church and so on. No money changes hands but community is built.
Why is Mr. Orlov gone and why does he want me to wait until October to
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