Beyond hypernormal zombified life for all

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The many faces of busyness as usual

From a European or American perspective the stereotype of the Japanese salaryman [1] is easily recognised as a product of a social norms that are no longer compatible with universal biological and mental human needs. Perceived normality is a social construct, but from within a given culture it is often impossible to draw a clear line between universal biological and mental human needs and culture specific norms and practices.

Only outsiders and members of marginalised groups are well equipped to identify and articulate unspoken social norms. An understanding of universal biological and mental human needs can only be developed from a transdisciplinary and intersectional perspective, based on a commonality and variability analysis across many cultures and across the entire history of human evolution.

In terms of energy and resource consumption, the social customs in Europe and North America are even further removed from ecological sustainability than the culture in Japan. This insight is nothing new.

Growth economics were clearly identified as unsustainable in the Limits to Growth report [2] in 1973, and the latest data shows we are blissfully tracking along the busyness as usual scenario. Similarly the limitations our social institutions and the limits of digital technologies [3] were well understood in the 1970s. These two examples illustrate the reality and the power of paradigmatic inertia. Humans are the uncontested local champions of cognitive dissonance [4] on this planet.

Paradigmatic inertia is never beneficial. It constitutes an institutional collective learning disability, and it can only broken be broken by events that are beyond the control of the institutions within the system.

At this particular point in time, paradigmatic inertia still fuels our governments and corporations, driving them to strive for towards a seemingly reassuring state of “normality”. From within the established institutional framework it is impossible to understand or predict when the paradigm of normality has been shattered beyond repair.

The level of cognitive dissonance within hierarchically organised societies can build up over decades and sometimes centuries [5] before it is resolved via external forces. The industrialised paradigm of technological progress and economic growth has now been operational for more than 250 years.

Hypernormality

The paradigmatic inertia that paralyses our industrialised monoculture plays out in terms of Zombie-like levels of cognitive dissonance – what some people during the Soviet era referred to as hypernormality.

In his 2016 documentary “HyperNormalisation” [6] Adam Curtis shows how the concept maps to our era, where critical thinking and individual agency is increasingly replaced by magical thinking, including absurd beliefs in the powers of artificially intelligent systems [7].

Hypernormality can also be understood through the lens of institutionalised and sanctified bullshit. André Spicer’s detailed sociological analysis of bullshit (2020) explains how organisations get completely lost in competitive social games. The key ingredients of the analysis:

The origins of bullshit

During World War I ‘bullshit’ entered informal British, North American and Australasian English speech. The lexicographer Eric Partridge claimed that during World War I, British commanding officers emphasized ‘bull’. This meant paying significant attention to soldiers’ appearances by ensuring they were perfectly dressed and their shoes were shined, even when this focus on appearance hindered the daily tasks of waging war.

Australian and New Zealand troops mocked British officers by calling it ‘bullshit’. Partridge suggests the term became common in military life during World War II. Throughout this period, it was used to refer to excessive regimentalism and attention to appearances. For instance, if soldiers prepared their quarters for inspection by a commanding officer, they engaged in ‘bullshit’.  Partridge gives the following example: ‘We’ve got to get this place bullshitted up—the Commanding Officer is coming around tomorrow morning.’ The troops used the term ‘bullshat’ to refer to something which has been polished up for display purposes. For instance, ‘Don’t touch that, it’s just been bullshat!’ ‘Bullshit’ was also closely connected with high-level administration.

For instance, during World War II, New Zealand airmen referred to the air-force headquarters as the ‘bullshit castle’. The term bullshit entered into print during World War II. The first instance of the word recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is in a dictionary of North American slang published in 1942.

Defining bullshit – and differentiating it from lying

While lying is an attempt to conceal the truth, bullshit is to talk without reference to the truth. ‘It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit’. Underpinning this is a ‘motive guiding and controlling’ the bullshitter meaning they are ‘unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are’. Recent psychological research considers the targets of bullshit by examining how some people with an ‘uncritical open mind’ are particularly receptive to bullshit. More sociologically oriented research has pointed out that in some social settings ‘bullshit’ is expected, enthusiastically embraced or silently tolerated.

Bullshit is a form of linguistic interaction. It involves characteristic patterns of communication such as evasiveness or not being held to account for one’s claims. Bringing these three aspects together, I define bullshit as empty and misleading communication. A more substantive definition of bullshit is that it consists of evasive and/or persuasive communication involving an indifference to the truth or attempts to pursue the truth which are driven by epistemically maligned intentions.

The bullshitter falls short of lying because they make use of insincere and misleading statements rather than outright falsehoods. Recent psychological work has found that established measures of everyday lying are sufficiently distinct from bullshitting.

The purpose of bullshit

The most intuitive explanation for why bullshit exists is the individual bullshitter. Many philosophical accounts assume that particular individuals have questionable motives or moral flaws which predispose them to bullshitting. For instance, Frankfurt points towards questionable motives of bullshitters such as intention to mislead their audience for personal gain. Others point out that bullshitters are driven by Machiavellian motives like deceiving their audience to gain power and resources. More recently, Cassam has argued that bullshitters are plagued by ‘epistemological vices’ such as carelessness, negligence, dogmatism and prejudice. Perhaps the most important of these is ‘epistemic insouciance’. This entails ‘a casual lack of concern about the facts or an indifference to whether their political statements have any basis in reality’. Some have argued that bullshitters suffer from cognitive failures. Finally, a recent study of school children found that bullshitters shared demographic characteristics; they were more likely to be males from better-off socioeconomic background.

Mats Alvesson argued that wider socio-cultural concerns with ‘imagology’ (looks and appearance) has encouraged organizations and individuals to generate clichés and bullshit. In my own book on the topic, I explored how the changing nature of bureaucracy created ideal conditions for bullshit. The rise of ‘neocracies’ which are obsessed with constant change and novelty has led organizations as well as people working within them to produce a large stream of bullshit.

Bullshitting as a culture

Bullshitting is not about hiding a secret from specific people at specific points in time, it is about pursuit of a hidden agenda, often associated with long-term goals. In this context a smooth blend of half-truths, falsehoods, and common sense (culturally endorsed myths) is much more potent than a set of lies.

One of the rare examples of an analysis of bullshitting as a social practice is Joshua Wakeham’s (2017) theoretical account. Drawing on studies of social epistemology, he argues that we gain most of our knowledge second hand. This means that we do not do epistemic due diligence ourselves. We are usually not cognitively equipped to do such due diligence, and even when we are, it is exhausting for us and alienating for others.

Furthermore, in most social settings there is not one obvious correct answer waiting to be found. So instead of relying on common standards of epistemology, we rely upon social cues to sort out which knowledge claims are true and which are false. These include the characteristics of the person speaking, the background knowledge that people draw on, and the interactional dynamics between parties. Often our reliance upon social cues means we systematically relax our epistemic norms to deal with ‘the social pragmatic need to get along’. This makes us ‘accustomed to faking it and going along with social fictions when necessary’.

The cult of busyness

Jackall’s (1986) study of a large American corporation found that bullshitting was systematically expected of middle managers in the company. One informant told Jackall that his job involved ‘characterizing the reality of a situation with any description that is necessary to make that situation more palatable to some group that matters. Everyone knows that it’s bullshit, but it’s accepted. This is the game’. A crucial aspect was not using too much or too little bullshit, and also being able to judge the appropriate moment to bullshit. Competent bullshitters also needed to become competent audience members for performances of bullshit.

When ignorance is noisy, uninformed actors do not simply stay silent about what they don’t know. Rather, they are compelled to speak about an issue of which they have little knowledge or understanding. A recent experimental study found that this compulsion to speak (coupled with a lack of accountability created by a ‘social pass’) was an important factor in explaining bullshitting. For instance, middle managers are often relatively ignorant about the work their subordinates are engaged with, but are under pressure to act as the leader by doing or say something. They fall back upon generic management speak rather than engage with the people they manage in language they find meaningful. A second example is British government ministers who find themselves with a new policy portfolio. Often these politicians have little or no knowledge of the new policy area, but they are under pressure to say and do something. To address this tricky situation, politicians rely on empty and often misleading language.

The cult of leadership and entrepreneurship

Many conceptual entrepreneurs operate in the management ideas industry. This is a sector made up of consultants, gurus, thought leaders, publishers and some academics. The quality of actors operating in this industry tends to be extremely variable. A consequence is that some of the conceptual entrepreneurs seeking to peddle their wares in the management ideas industry are bullshit merchants. There are some sub-sectors of the management ideas industry where bullshit merchants are particularly concentrated. One is the ‘leadership industries’.

This sub-sector includes many consultants, speakers, experts and advisors who create and distribute pseudo-scientific ideas about leadership. A second sub-sector with a significant concentration of bullshit merchants is the ‘entrepreneurship industry’. This is the cluster of mentors, (pseudo-)entrepreneurs and thought leaders who push poorly evidenced, misleading and seductive ideas about entrepreneurship. Often their target is so-called ‘wantrepreneurs’. In some cases, these ideas have been found to encourage vulnerable young people to adopt what are seductive but empty and misleading ideas about entrepreneurial success.

Institutionalisation and sanctification of bullshit

Successful bullshitting enhances the image of bullshitters. This happens when bullshitters are able to more or less convincingly present themselves as more grandiose than they actually are. External audiences are more likely to make positive judgements about them and be more willing to invest resources in them. Organizations often use trendy but misleading names to attract resources (particularly from the uninformed). In recent years, firms have gained a boost in valuation by adopting a name invoking blockchain technology.

As well as enhancing one’s image, bullshitting can also help to enhance self-identity. This is because bullshit can enable bullshitters to conjure a kind of ‘self-confidence trick’. This happens when bullshitters mislead themselves into believing their own bullshit. Self-deception enables individuals to present themselves as much more self-confident than they would otherwise seem if they had to engage in cognitively taxing processes of dual processing (holding in one’s mind both the deceptive statement as well as the truth). The self-confidence which comes from self-deception can aid resource acquisition. For instance, entrepreneurs are encouraged to ignore their objective chances of failure so they can appear self-confident in their search for resources to support their venture.

When bullshit has become part of the formal organization for some time, it can slowly start to seem valuable in and of itself. When this happens, bullshit can be treated as sacred. Sanctification happens when an element of secular life (such as bullshitting) is elevated, a sense of higher meaning is projected into it, and deep existential significance is invested in it.

As long as life is framed as a competitive social game failure is guaranteed – because then the suffering of others is simply another great busyness opportunity [8].

In the rear view mirror, with a bit more historical distance, say from the vantage point of 2050, the commonalities between corporate capitalism (the “Western” model) and state capitalism (the “Chinese” model) may become more apparent, and the differences may be recognised as superficial.

Similarly, the changes following the collapse of the East German regime and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s will be recognised as superficial in terms of cultural evolution – as processes of assimilation rather then as an evolutionary step change in social operating models. However, the changes in Eastern Europe do illustrate that assimilative changes are not predictable and are driven from the bottom up rather than from the top down within an established system. Changes from the top down tend to either amount to decorative window dressings or take on the form of violent conflict.

Wake up call

In aggregate, the COVID 19 pandemic, increasingly severe manifestations of the climate crisis, and growing levels of social inequities represent a powerful external force and an opportunity to cut through the façade of hypernormality.

While in earlier decades slower rates of ecological destruction and a lack of tangible climate related disasters have allowed baselines to shift with only few people paying attention, the rate ecological destruction and the frequency of climate related disasters has made it impossible for people to not notice the changes [9].

A growing number of people from all over the world are waking up to the fact that faith in leaders is what is likely to lead to the end of our species and countless other species. Any tools and sets of knowledge that are incompatible with a path of radical energy decent are likely to rapidly become legacy technologies that are only relevant from a historic perspective – to warn future generations about technological approaches that have lead to existential risks.

“Normal” busyness as usual is slowly killing all of us. The sooner we unplug from the collective delusion, the fewer people will die or suffer needlessly. De-growth (a genuine reduction in unsustainable energy and resource consumption) can play out over generations, and it can be the most civilised project of mutual aid humans have ever undertaken.

Cultural evolution vs cultural revolution

Revolutions can be understood as phase shifts that occur when the level of cognitive dissonance that a population experiences between daily life and the fictions that are perpetuated by rulers and elites can no longer be maintained. In a revolution a large part of the population openly dismisses established institutions as dysfunctional and establishes new institutions based on ideas that often have been “fermenting” within the population for decades. Only some revolutions constitute a genuine shift in the paradigm of governance. The typical result tends to be a new set of institutions, a revised composition of the elites, and a new set of rules for maintaining an oppressive primate dominance hierarchy.

In contrast, the language system of evolutionary design provides us with a collaborative framing and terminology for evolutionary processes that allows bottom-up social movements to participate in the evolution of a living system, and to integrate their knowledge into a living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems.

Where to from here? We live in a highly dynamic world, and our capability to understand the world we have stumbled into is quite limited. Our destination is beyond human comprehension, but ways of life that are in tune with our biological needs and cognitive limits are always within reach, even when we find ourselves in a self-created life destroying environment. All it takes is a shift in perspective, and corresponding shifts in the aspects of our lives that we value.

In a world of global heating and ecological collapse, the direction of cultural evolution will determine how much suffering human societies will experience over the coming decades, and what kind of world will be available as the starting point for ecological regeneration.

David Graeber had a refreshingly down to earth and entrepreneurial approach to activism, which consisted of embarking on actions that seem appropriate to create a new reality (rather than simply engaging in civil disobedience) – and ignoring the established status-quo as needed to overcome crippling paradigmatic inertia. He conceptualised the revolt of the caring classes [10] and encouraged the activation of bureaucratically suppressed knowledge, i.e. the things that people are not allowed to talk about, into a power that can transform society.

I have a very similar philosophy. Our team at S23M is actively involved in catalysing cultural evolution in the healthcare sector. If you are stuck in a place where busyness as usual is getting in the way of cultural evolution, just follow the money to know where to start building new models from the bottom up. As long as governments operate healthcare like a busyness, from the top down, rather than from the bottom up, based on the needs of local communities, whānau, and patients, healthcare organisations remain paralysed by paradigmatic inertia.

Related documentaries

[1] Studio Kronikeur. 2020. I Work, Therefore I Am (Life as a Salaryman).

[2] ABC. 1973. Computer predicts the end of civilisation.

[3] PBS. 1979. The Information Society.

[4] Double Down News. 2021. Why Jeff Bezos’ Space Dream is Humanity’s Nightmare by George Monbiot.

[5] No Future. 2016. Chapo Trap House Episode #65 with Adam Curtis.

[6] BBC. 2016. HyperNormalisation by Adam Curtis.

[7] Minhaaj Rehman. 2021. Natural Language Understanding with Walid Saba.

[8] WSJ. 2021. Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes on Trial: What to Expect.

[9] A Natty Nook. 2021. The Role of Literature in a Climate Crisis.

[10] Nika Dubrovsky. 2020. David Graeber Revolt of the Caring Class and Visual Assembly.

Evolutionary design

Evolutionary design is an approach that is based on the principles of cultural evolution that can be derived from anthropological observations and archaeological evidence about human scale societies that predate the emergence of civilisations. In evolutionary design the moniker of design is replaced by the concept of evolution. Cultural evolution entails not only the evolution of collaborative relationships and supporting tools within a group, but also the evolution of collaborative relationships between groups with many cultural commonalities and also between groups with few cultural commonalities.

This article hints at the huge potential for cultural diversity at human scale in the absence of super-human scale hierarchical systems of command and control. The principles of evolutionary design have been distilled from my experiences with cultural evolution in human scale groups and between human scale groups. Evolutionary design principles are introduced in a tabular form that maps them to related Design Justice Network principles and to contrasting principles that otherwise commonly drive design in industrialised societies.

Cultural evolution in the industrial era

We have created education factories that focus almost entirely on replication. However, humans have evolved as part of highly diverse ecosystems, i.e. we have evolved to survive and thrive in highly diverse contexts, rather than as part of super human scale monocultures, i.e. nation states, transnational corporations, and physical environments dominated by industrialised agri-monocultures.

Modern industrialised societies neglect the four other evolutionary functions that operate in healthy ecosystems that include humans: understanding of the local ecosystem and the roles of the various species within it, selection of variants that increase diversity and strengthen the ecosystem against external shocks, experimentation with new variants to uncover new possibilities, and sustaining collaborations within and between species that are adapted to the characteristics of the local environment.

In the industrialised neoliberal ideology, cultural evolution is reduced to a dangerously simplistic notion of innovation:

  1. The role of selection is reduced to a simplistic optimisation problem in a single dimension, i.e. growth in the abstract sphere of monetary metrics. In a suitably designed financial system this creates a consistent bias that benefits those who start out with above average financial resources.
  2. The role of experimentation is reduced to the superficial material variability that is easily achievable via mass customisation, and it excludes any variability that might undermine the self-preservation of established institutionalised power structures (national governments and transnational corporations). Amongst other things this is achieved by systematically pushing entrepreneurs down a path of “start-up” models that hand over control to speculators, and by co-opting the most compliant and unscrupulous entrepreneurs into the speculator class.
  3. The role of sustaining collaborative relationships within living ecosystems is reduced to the perpetuation of established institutionalised human power structures.
  4. The role of human understanding of the local ecosystem, and the well-being of marginalised groups and of all the non-human inhabitants are at best secondary concerns.

The fragile economic mono-cultures that emerge from competition are prone to boom and bust cycles – the net effect is a waste of precious time and scarce resources.

The 26 evolutionary design principles in the context of design justice

The evolution of healthy ecosystems, communities, understandable companies, and trusted relationships between all participants is shaped by the limits of human scale (Schumacher. 1973, Norberg-Hodge 1991).

Instead of the traditional framing of a company or organisation as consisting of individuals, framing it as a set of binary relationships between specific people is a useful tool for understanding companies and communities as evolving systems. Egalitarian relationships shift the focus away from dangerous tribalism towards a model where collaboration between groups is as relevant as collaboration within groups.

Evolutionary design takes the widest possible context and potential limits of applicability into account, by focusing on the diversity of locally relevant perspectives across the intended scope, by emphasising minority perspectives, and by acknowledging the counter-productive role of all forms of social power gradients. The intent of evolutionary design in terms of accomodating diversity of needs corresponds to the intent of inclusive design, i.e. “design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference”, including explicit recognition of neurological differences as relevant factors.

The understanding that power gradients stand in the way of transformation is fundamental, and explicitly connects the drivers of evolutionary design to the goals of design justice. Evolutionary design seeks to reestablish local egalitarian social norms similar to the most important norms that characterised the small scale societies that existed before the emergence of formal institutions of concentrated social power and written systems of record keeping, i.e. the matrix of domination.

Evolution at human scale can be described in terms of 26 design principles. The table below maps the principles of evolutionary design to the ten Design Justice Network principles and contrasts them with commonly encountered design objectives in industrialised societies.

Intentional bottom-up cultural innovation at human scale

Fast paced cultural innovation at human scale is the home turf of small software technology companies. The core components in the context of software companies have a one to one correspondence to the core components in biological systems:

  1. human organisations ➜ biological organisms
  2. platforms ➜ bioregions
  3. products ➜ species
  4. services/functions ➜ services/functions

The core activities in biological ecosystems map to software product line design and engineering streams of activities and feedback loops as follows:

The correspondence is no accident. Software companies that combine deep domain specific expertise with the capability to conduct experiments and a commitment to learning about the commonalities and variabilities of user needs, with a particular focus on marginalised and non-obvious users, operate in a quality and productivity league that differs by one or more orders of magnitude from software companies that don’t apply a software product line approach (i.e. evolutionary principles) to their work.

What is the significance of the correspondence? The practical significance of the correspondence is profound, as it provides us with a collaborative framing and terminology for evolutionary processes, including evolution guided by conscious human design and ecological interdependencies and limits, without any reference to the hyper-competitive cultural bias of neoliberalism, or the deeply misguided assumption that competitive markets are the best mechanism for “driving” cultural evolution.

The evolutionary lens allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and to integrate their knowledge into a living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems. Software product line engineering can be understood as a form of collaborative niche construction.

Human guided cultural evolution

No successful software company would ever organise in terms of competing teams to develop the best possible product. Quite the opposite is the case. Software companies that take a product line approach operate dedicated work-streams and teams for each of the four core activities within the evolutionary process:

  1. experimentation with variations in implementation technology choices and operational environments to better meet customer needs,
  2. platform engineering, i.e. deliberate selection of common features that are useful for specific categories/species of customers that use the product line,
  3. product engineering, i.e. replication of best engineering practices in the assembly of concrete products for specific customers,
  4. product line operations, i.e.sustaining the provision of services to customers and processing feedback from customers.

In a product line approach parallel experiments in a collaborative ecosystem replace head-on competition in a disruptive market environment as a major driver of evolution. Instead of being commodified resources and objects of financial speculation, the people and teams involved in product line evolution are part of a larger community of learning and mutual aid (Kropotkin 1902).

Successful software products that are used by many thousands or millions of customers are best thought of as a domain specific language system that complements human cognitive abilities and that facilitates and mediates collaboration and/or social competition between humans.

In a networked world with ubiquitous internet connectivity and pervasive use of Internet enabled personal devices, software plays a significant role in guiding – or even forcing – human cultural evolution. Experienced software companies develop fast paced collaborative feedback loops with customers in order to minimise misunderstandings, and to gain a deeper understanding of the commonalities and the variabilities of customer needs in specific niches and geographies, which in turn is fed into the evolutionary process that shapes the future scope and functionality of the product line.

Software product design conducted in isolation, without giving customers and marginalised groups the ability to shape the design, is a form of social engineering, whether intentional or not. All users of the Internet are familiar with the social externalities. Online social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, etc.) dictate the possible communication and collaboration patterns, and in doing so typically maximise the “return on investment” for the owners of the platform, in the metrics of success prescribed by the neoliberal paradigm.

The huge opportunities and dangers of mediating human communication and collaboration and/or social competition via software platforms can not be overstated. The language systems that we create with the help of software can either amplify the unique human capacity for compassion and creative collaboration or they can amplify social competition and the brutal power politics that characterise primate dominance hierarchies.

The combination of experimentation and platform engineering replaces direct competition between people and companies with collaborative niche construction as the driving force of cultural evolution. The collaborative approach is much less energy intensive, it nurtures mutual trust within and between companies, and it wastes less time and genuinely scarce resources.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest reminder of how dependent our societies have become on software as an extension of the language system we use on a daily basis. The words we type into our devices may look familiar, but the ways in which they are processed, and who gets to see them and interpret them, are increasingly beyond our control. Similarly the words and images we are fed via our screens have been pre-processed, filtered, arranged, and decorated in ways that are largely beyond our control.

There are huge differences between the software platforms at our disposal. Whilst many software platforms encourage toxic competitive social games other software platforms are the most amazing tools for catalysing specific kinds of collaboration. As a software platform co-designer (i.e. language system co-designer) I am acutely aware of how the work of specific organisations and teams can be greatly improved for all participants, by finding ways to:

  1. reduce misunderstandings,
  2. catalyse knowledge flows and essential interactions that nurture trusted relationships and a greater level of shared understanding,
  3. reduce cognitive load, by giving users the tools to automate repeating patterns of coordination tasks according to their individual preferences, and according to dynamically evolving needs.

There is a fundamental qualitative difference between (a) software platforms that serve the neoliberal paradigm and (b) software platforms that are operated by employee owned companies and that evolve together with the communities and organisations that use the software, to catalyse communally agreed patterns of collaboration, and to automate administrative chores.

Cultural evolution in the context of ecological collapse

Understanding how software platforms evolve is important because of their role as a language system that shapes human interactions in a world of zero marginal cost communications (Rifkin 2013). Cultural evolution of course is a topic that is much bigger than software. In a dynamic world of global heating and ecological collapse, its direction will determine how much suffering human societies will experience over the coming decades, and what kind of world will be available as the starting point for ecological regeneration.

If we leave the evolution of software platforms in the hands of profit maximising corporations, the future is one of extreme paradigmatic inertia – concluding the sixth mass extinction event with the literal liquidation of the planet. If instead we rediscover the language of life at human scale, we have the chance of nurturing the evolution of human scale collaboration platforms that are attuned to the task of ecological regeneration and mutual aid rather than the task of planetary liquidation and competitive social games.

In a world of zero marginal cost communications, capital is no longer a necessary prerequisite for the development of software platforms. The world of software platforms is already a world of shiny (i.e. capitalised) candy wrappers around Open Source software. It is time to discard the wrappers and focus on evolving the substrate for human communication and creative collaboration.

Equipped with an appreciation of the human capacity for collaboration and an understanding of human cognitive limits, a very simple question can guide us towards the future:

Which of the following choices is likely to be less energy intensive?

Option A. Living life to nurture, maintain, and repair trusted relationships at human scale, by implementing prosocial principles (Atkins et al. 2019) and tailoring creative collaboration tools (the principles of evolutionary design) to local needs.

Option B. Living life competing against each other according to culturally defined rules, and having to assume that everyone has an interest in subverting the rules for personal gain.

As Joseph Tainter’s analysis of complex societies (1988) shows, collapse of hierarchical complexity “is not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity”. Declining marginal returns on investments in established administrative structures ultimately result in an imperative to establish less energy intensive forms of collaborations that are more inclusive in terms of the diversity of stakeholders involved in shaping the path forward.

Decades of research and empirical evidence demonstrates that behaviourism, i.e. all forms of management based on rewards and or punishment don’t work over the medium and long term. We know that rewards and punishment only superficially and temporarily lead to perceived compliance or higher levels of performance. All forms of coercion and control, irrespective of the level of sugar coating, undermine trust and the human capacity for altruism and mutual aid.

Take a moment to reflect on the way in which abstract institutions, i.e. companies, governments, and other organisations make decisions and how these decisions affect our lives. How much do these institutions understand about the thousands and millions of people and the billions of relationships affected by their decisions? The inevitable conclusion:

The average person is more conscious of their own limits (more intelligent) than most of the institutions that we have created to operate our society.

The sweet spot of good company (human scale) lies somewhere between the collective insanity of large corporations and the individual limits of cognitive ability and experience – limited by our ability to nurture, maintain, and as needed repair trusted relationships.

Basic implications of the limits of human scale for the creation of good company:

  • Don’t look to large established institutions for advice; all hierarchical models of command and control dampen essential feedback loops, and thereby induce a collective learning disability
  • Optimise for trusted collaboration and collective intelligence at human scale
  • To build trusted eye level relationships, extend trust, but do so incrementally, one step at a time
  • As part of extending trust, share not only information about your strengths but also information about your cognitive limits and vulnerabilities
  • If you need advice, ask trusted friends and colleagues who know and genuinely understand you

The journey towards a healthier relationship with the ecosystems which we are part of starts with the most powerful tool at our disposal, the introduction and consistent use of new language and new semantics – and we can catalyse cultural evolution in this direction with a shift towards zero capital software platforms, i.e. by leaving behind the shiny candy wrappers, and by prioritising support for mutual aid and ecological regeneration in the foundations of our digital language systems.

You may wonder which aspects of Western industrialised knowledge are worthwhile to retain (and for how long), given that cultural evolution is a dynamic process that unfolds over multiple generations. In a recent talk and subsequent Q&A Rupert Read (2021) offers valuable suggestions for cultural evolution beyond the abstract realm of software platforms.

The following sets of knowledge are good candidates for preserving and cultivating in a global knowledge commons:

  • Locally successful collaborative social operating models and traditions, which can be documented in detail, including their known scope of applicability and known limitations, and can be made available for partial or complete adoption and refinement by communities in other parts of the world that are facing similar challenges and constraints
  • Our scientific understanding of the natural world, which complements traditional forms of knowledge about local ecosystems
  • The diagnostic tools, treatment regimes, and surgical knowledge of Western medicine, which can be made available for integration into holistic approaches to well-being that are adapted to the specific contexts of local cultures and physical environments
  • The engineering knowledge that underpins our digital computation and communication technologies, which allows us to share, validate, and incrementally refine valuable knowledge globally
  • The engineering knowledge needed for local generation of electricity from renewable sources, to power essential digital technologies and to compensate for local or temporary limitations of human labour
  • The emerging de-engineering knowledge needed for creating zero-waste cycles of material resources, to reduce and ultimately eliminate our dependence on the mining of non-renewable resources

Any tools and sets of knowledge that are incompatible with a path of radical energy decent are likely to rapidly become legacy technologies that are only relevant from a historic perspective – to warn future generations about technological approaches that have lead to existential risks.

Conclusion

The lessons about evolutionary design as described in this article have their roots in the world of software and data intensive products, and more fundamentally, in our understanding of egalitarian human scale societies, but the scope of applicability is by no means limited to the world of data and software.

We all thrive when being given the opportunity to work with our most trusted peers. In good company everyone is acutely aware of all the collective intelligence and capability that is available in the form of trusted colleagues, friends, and family.

“Transdisciplinary collaboration hinges on psychological safety, cultural safety, and inclusiveness. These and other human factors determine the inherent social value of a company, the wellbeing of employees, and the quality of care delivered to patients.”

Terry J Hannan, Visiting Faculty Australian Institute of Health Innovation, Macquarie University, International Academy of Health Sciences Informatics

Organisations are only able to deliver valuable services to the extent that they can rely on a network of trusted relationships both within the organisation and the wider community that supports and is supported by them.

References

Atkins P. W. B. et al. 2019. Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups. Context Press.

Design Justice Network. 2018. “Design Justice Network Principles.” https://designjustice.org/read-the-principles

Kropotkin, P. 1902. Mutual Aid : A Factor of Evolution.

Norberg-Hodge, H. 1991. Ancient Futures. Local Futures.

Rifkin, J. 2013. The Zero Marginal Cost Society. St Martin’s Press.

Read R. 2021. “The G7: how they fail us, and why”. https://youtu.be/iQ0HO6NFr-8?t=1490

Schumacher, E. F. 1973. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Harper Perennial.

SOA Manifesto. 2009. http://www.soa-manifesto.org/ 

Tainter J. 1988. Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press.