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.

Community-oriented life at human scale

Like bees and ants, humans are eusocial animals. Through the lenses of evolutionary biology and cultural evolution, local communities – and especially small groups of 20 to 100 people – are the primary organisms within human society, in contrast to individuals, corporations, and nation states. The implications for our civilisation are profound.

Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

The documentary “Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh” (John Page, Chris Breemen, Helena Norberg & Hodge & Eric Walton, 1993) provides an excellent introduction to the local, human scale traditions in Ladakh, and how local communities have been affected by the industrialised notion of “progress”.

The observation that consumer culture as portrayed in advertisements and Western media appeals primarily to insecure teenagers is apt. I am tempted to qualify the observation from my autistic perspective: consumer culture is designed to target neuronormative teenagers, i.e. those for whom fitting in with their peer group comes naturally. If teenage boys were the first adopters of Western values in Ladakh, I wonder whether this may simply reflect that teenage girls had perhaps been given less opportunity to spend time in the city, and had therefore been less exposed to Western influence. From personal experience in multiple Western cultures I would suggest that autistic teenagers, irrespective of gender identity, are less susceptible to the addiction to consumer culture – simply because autistic teenagers don’t see the point of the competitive social games that consumerism depends on.

What I find delightful is the way in which the traditional culture in Ladakh is based entirely on trusted relationships at human scale instead of abstract group identities. The focus on trusted relationships mirrors the way in which autistic people collaborate and develop autistic culture – if given the opportunity. In the traditional culture in Ladakh, where every person is appreciated for their unique strengths and weaknesses, it would seem very unlikely for autistic people to be pathologised. In such a culture, autistic people would likely be appreciated for their ability to focus, their unique knowledge, and their ability to assist with solving unusual problems.

It is also fascinating and terribly sad to see a concrete example of how a Western style education system systematically extinguishes precious knowledge about the local environment and about locally sustainable ways of living within a single generation. I see a direct connection between hypernormative Western education systems and the increasing levels of pathologisation of autists and other neurodivergent people in Western societies. I was lucky at school. I aced most of the academic parts, because I am not dyslexic and because I enjoyed abstract mathematics. But I learned so much more outside school in autodidactic mode, from books and from experimenting with various tools and materials. Neuronormative children who rely much more on social learning readily absorb the cultural diet they are fed, and if that diet is limited to the monoculture of industrialised consumer society, the effects are devastating.

The documentary reminds me a lot about what I saw as a small child in the early 1970s in Nigeria: pollution, slums, crime, and exponential population growth in Lagos, in stark contrast to traditional villages further afield, which were largely self-sufficient and very different from the Western way of life. In Nigeria “economic growth” and “progress” were fuelled by the interests of Big Oil. I also remember the way in which Western adults at the time talked about what they saw as “uneducated” people, and the way in which Western countries delivered “development aid” and “best practices” – establishing large cattle farms, drilling deeper water wells etc. When it all failed, it was much easier to blame the locals than to admit to cultural bias, corporate greed, and lack of appreciation of local knowledge and wisdom.

The follow-up documentary on “The Economics of Happiness” (Helena Norberg-Hodge, Steven Gorelick, and John Page, 2011) from Local Futures on the toxic role of globalisation was made shortly after the Global Financial Crisis, and is still valid today.

This documentary emphasises and illustrates the critical role of communities and trusted relationships at human scale. What makes it stand out is the holistic perspective on how collective well being and livelihoods have been affected by globalisation in the industrial era, and the many concrete examples of the direct effects of globalisation from local perspectives around the planet. In contrast, otherwise very good documentaries often have a narrow focus on a specific industry, or on climate change, or on ecological destruction.

Together I think both documentaries constitute a powerful tool for educating the world about the critical importance and the immense value of life at human scale, and about all the knowledge, wisdom and happiness we are losing by myopically focusing on the industrialised notion of economic growth, with still dominates the global economy.

We must not be fooled by simplistic multiple-bottom line approaches. As Daniel L. Everett points out, human cultures across the board are often remarkably similar in their values, but they tend to differ significantly in the relative ranking of what is perceived as valuable – and these differences in relative priorities lead to very different dynamics.

Only in a W.E.I.R.D. globalised world is money always the bottom line at the bottom of all bottom lines, where return on investment is not measured in trusted and mutually enjoyable relationships, but in purely monetary terms.

The following discussion on decentralising social power (Daniel Christian Wahl and Helena Norberg-Hodge, 21 June 2020) connects the themes of globalisation and (re)localisation to our present situation in 2021.

Both Daniel Christian Wahl and Helena Norberg-Hodge recognise that education and activism needs to occur alongside work within local communities at human scale. To overcome the paradigmatic inertia that paralyses our industrialised monoculture, we need to fully expose the cultural and ideological bias of W.E.I.R.D. hypernormality, including all the unspoken social norms (the W.E.I.R.D. axioms) that are not encoded in any legislation but that are applied unquestioned on a daily basis.

It is quite concerning to see the neoliberal ideological bias perpetuated in New Zealand, even 12 months into a global pandemic. Rising house prices are aggravating severe levels of inequality and are causing some level of debate, but politicians continue to shy away from taking measures that could reverse the trend. In Opotiki in the Bay of Plenty for example, the rental market is drying up, and the traditional local community is incrementally being destroyed by market forces. Healthy communities and human relationships have become externalities in the financialised economic game.

In my book “The beauty of collaboration at human scale” I offer thinking tools that may assist us to unW.E.I.R.D. some of the perverse institutions of Western culture and to develop new institutions that are attuned to human scale. The book highlights the invaluable role that marginalised minorities and neurodivergent people have always played in human cultural evolution, in particular in times of crisis.

For our journey into the future we need appropriate tools for addressing challenges and needs over different time horizons. Below is an overview of regional, local, and online community-oriented work that I am involved in. Please get in touch in case you would like to contribute to any of these communities or if you have questions regarding any of these resources.

Regional peer groups and short-range tools for survival

  1. Bullying alert service for employees
  2. Employer psychological safety rating service

Local and regional communities and mid-range tools for healthier lives

  1. Creative Collaboration
  2. Trans Tasman Knowledge Exchange for the healthcare sector
  3. UnConference on Interdisciplinary Innovation and Collaboration

Online communities and long-range tools for multi-generational cultural evolution

  1. The NeurodiVenture operating model for worker cooperatives
  2. The Design Justice Network
  3. Autistic Collaboration
  4. Neuroclastic
  5. Democratizing Work

Life beyond economics

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

People talk about a global ecological crisis, a climate crisis, an economic crisis, an institutional crisis, a pandemic, and a mental health crisis. These crises are highly interconnected.

Gaining a comprehensive understanding of human potential and limitations is not possible from within any single discipline. Not only is each discipline focused on specific aspects of human behaviour, but the different disciplines that examine human behaviour rest on mutually contradictory assumptions about human nature.

Understanding the co-creation of values

Economist Mariana Mazzucato points out that the activities that societies consider “productive” or “valuable” are subject to significant shifts over the decades and centuries. She observes that GDP is a hodge-podge that invites lobbying rather than reasoning about value and that the continuously evolving values within society need to become part of economic reasoning for the discipline of economics to remain relevant.

Mariana Mazzucato also explains why we shouldn’t try to go back to “normal” after the pandemic, but should instead rethink how governments can work together with businesses in partnership to solve big problems. She advocates making use of multi-dimensional metrics to track progress towards desirable goals. Trained in contemporary economics, she does however rely on the implicit assumption that markets are essential tools for coordinating human activities at scale.

It requires a transdisciplinary understanding of human collective behaviour to realise that fungibility of abstract metrics (the currencies that are used to coordinate activities within markets) is a major problem, especially as long as individuals have radically different levels of access to fungible currencies.

The mathematics that optimise markets are blind to externalities, and as long as market based incentives are used, people will look for ways to circumnavigate or co-opt any regulatory constraints to invent new competitive games, thereby shifting or obfuscating rather than reducing externalities.

Understanding humans

Michael Tomasello has spent many years working with children and with chimpanzees to understand the evolution of collaborative behaviour, and to explore how human behaviour differs from the behaviour of other primates. From a recent interview on the foundations of human cultural capability:

“When children produce sweets collaboratively they feel they should share them equally… So if you look at all the things you think are most amazing about humans – we’re building skyscrapers, we have social institutions like governments, we have linguistic symbols, we have math symbols, we have all these things – not one of them is the product of a single mind. These are things that were invented collaboratively…”

A range of simple experiments show that in contrast to chimpanzees, human babies and young human children are highly collaborative, which may come as a surprise to many economists.

However, to understand human creativity and collective intelligence beyond the most basic forms of collaboration, we must look beyond the experiments conducted by Michael Tomasello and his colleagues. To appreciate the full range of human collaborative ability we need to consider the influence of individual neurological variability on sensory processing and social motivations. Unfortunately on this topic Michael Tomasello’s understanding of autistic people is limited to literature references and “autism research” conducted under the pathology paradigm.

In this article I dive into the cultural evolutionary pressures that allowed autistic traits to proliferate and persist, and I rely on personal experiences to illustrate (a) why autists collaborate in ways that differ from “normal” expectations and (b) why we are uniquely equipped to act as catalysts and translators between different cultures and groups.

The innate collaborative human tendency demonstrated by Michael Tomasello is also supported by anthropological research.

Samuel Bowles is an economist that has spent his career researching the origins of economic inequality over the last 100,000 years, and he comes to very interesting conclusions that are consistent with my own understanding of human cultural evolution and my observations on the new forms of collaboration and communication that have become possible in a digitally networked world.

Designing complex collaborations and flows

Our future depends on the adoption of new forms of creative collaboration. The kind of mathematics that can assist us in reasoning about dynamically evolving value systems and the coordination of non-trivial circular resource flows involve groups and graphs rather than numerical calculations.

The ecological lens is a modelling language for evolving ecosystems. It connects the human lens and the evolutionary lens via the activity of play and a critical perspective/motivation. The ecological lens catalyses diversity within the living world from an ecological perspective.

The evolutionary lens is a modelling language for collaborative niche construction. It consists of five categories that correspond to core elements of modern evolutionary theory (selection, variation, replication, understanding, and sustaining). The evolutionary lens allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and to integrate their knowledge into the living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems.

The human lens is modelling language for human social behaviour that allows us to understand living systems and to reason about such systems. It consists of thirteen categories that are invariant across cultures, space, and time. The human lens provides a visual language and reasoning framework for transdisciplinary collaboration. The human lens allows us to make sense of the world from a human perspective, to evolve our value systems, and to structure and adapt human endeavours accordingly.

Within the human lens the logistic lens provides five categories for describing value creating activities: grow (referring to the production of food and energy), make (referring to the engineering, and construction of systems), care (referring to the maintenance of production and system quality attributes), move (referring to the transportation of resources and flows of information and knowledge), and play (referring to creative experimentation and other social activities). The logistic lens can be used to model and understand feedback loops across levels of scale (from individuals, to teams, organisations, and economic ecosystems) and between agents (companies, regulatory bodies, local communities, research institutions, educational institutions, citizens, and governance institutions).

From wealth to good health

The categories of the logistic lens assist in the identification of suitable quantitative metrics for evaluating performance against a multi-dimensional value system articulated via a configuration of the semantic lens (the five categories of social, designed, symbolic, organic, and critical).

In the transition from a paradigm of economics based on competition to a to an ecology of care based on collaboration we will incrementally discover valuable metrics of health, well being, and waste flows, and we will become less and less concerned about abstract and potentially misleading metrics of wealth accumulation.

In an ecology of care the focus shifts from speculative investments for profit (where the people actively involved in a venture are viewed as tools towards a profitable “exit”) to investments in the health of ecosystems and people (where the people actively involved in a venture are co-investing in each other, resulting in a network of trusted relationships that connects the venture into an ecosystem of multi-dimensional resource flows between suppliers, customers, and partners).

Our society faces the unprecedented challenge of making a transition towards significantly different values within a single generation. This is the real challenge, rather than finding our way back to a state of “normal” that only ever worked for a very small minority.

From an ecological perspective waste flows are destined to emerge as the most critical flows that need to be tracked and quantified meticulously. It will also make sense to quantify selected biological health metrics, but it may not make much sense to attempt to quantify all aspects of well being.

Reading list

Beyond the articles and talks referenced in the article, below is a list of related books and background articles:

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

Babák D., Management of People: Weird and Feared, Da Vinci Institute, 2013

Bauwens M. et al., Peer to Peer : The Commons Manifesto, University of Westminster Press, 2019

Benyus J., Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, William Morrow Paperbacks, 1997

Bowles S. and Gintis H., A Cooperative Species : Human Reciprocity and its Evolution, Princeton University Press, 2013

Bowles S., The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution, Cambridge University Press, 2012

Costanza-Chock S, Design Justice : Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, MIT Press, 2020

Eisler R. et al., Nurturing Our Humanity : How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future, Oxford University Press, 2019

Everard M., The Ecosystems Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016

Graeber D., Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Melville House Publishing, 2011

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

Mazzucato M., The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy, Public Affairs, 2018

Milton, D., On the ontological status of autism: The “double empathy problem.”, Disability & Society, 27(6), 883–887, 2012

Milton, D., Embodied sociality and the conditioned relativism of dispositional diversity, Autonomy, the Critical Journal of Interdisciplinary Autism Studies, 1(3), 1–7, 2014

Milton, D., Autistic expertise: A critical reflection on the production of knowledge in autism studies, Autism, 18(7), 794–802, 2014

Paul R. A., Mixed Messages : Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Society, University of Chicago Press, 2015

Pluchino A., Biondoy A. E., Rapisardaz A., Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure, [physics.soc-ph], 2018

Reinhartz-Berger, I. et al., Domain Engineering : Product Lines, Languages, and Conceptual Models, Springer, 2013

Saijo T. et al., Future Design: Incorporating Preferences of Future Generations for Sustainability, Springer, 2020

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

Stanish C., The Evolution of Human Co-operation : Ritual and Social Complexity in Stateless Societies, Cambridge University Press, 2017

Tomasello M., Why We Cooperate, Boston Review Books, 2009

Tomasello M., Becoming Human : A Theory of Ontogeny, Harvard University Press, 2019

Wahl D.C., Designing Regenerative Cultures, Triarchy Press, 2016

Wilson D. S., Does Altruism Exist?, Yale University Press, 2015

Wilson D.S., This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution, Pantheon Books, 2019

Yergeau, M., Authoring autism: On rhetoric and neurological queerness, Duke University Press, 2017

Collaboration for dummies

Photo by Pepe Reyes on Unsplash

In a W.E.I.R.D. social world where anything that requires an attention span beyond 5 minutes is ignored in favour of short memes, silver bullets, and artificially “intelligent” systems, this article intends to provide an emergency brake to slow us down to a speed that allows critical self reflection.

Replace the toxic language of bu$yness

Instead of telling people what you think they would love to hear, tell people what they need to know. Step outside the box of the established social and economic paradigm by adopting a life affirming working definition of collective intelligence that is not confined to the distorted characterisation of human potential that dominates in W.E.I.R.D. cultures.

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. Additionally the insights encapsulated in the 10 Design Justice Principles can assist in learning how to unW.E.I.R.D. our societies.

Note: This recommendation must be applied literally. Continuing to use the old language when interacting with established institutions and the dominant culture renders the effort useless.

Think long-term

Instead of aiming for “low hanging fruit”, build trusted relationships around long-term goals.

It can be helpful to learn from outsiders and members of minorities. Onondaga Chief and Faithkeeper Oren Lyons describes a collaboration between indigenous nations that has a history that predates European “discovery” by over thousand years, and that has survived until today. The culture he describes is one example of a number of indigenous societies that have traditionally operated with a 150 year or longer look-ahead time horizon. 

Recently I was delighted to read about a company here in Aotearoa that operates on a 500 year time horizon. S23M, our employee owned NeurodiVenture is 19 years old. Our measure of success is tied to a 200+ year time horizon.

Note: Time horizons shorter than 150 years encourage tribalism and counter-productive competition between groups.

Enjoy interdependence

Instead of generating “profit”, nurture relationships at human scale – with humans and with other forms of life.

The notion of disability in our society is underscored by a bizarre conception of “independence”. Humans have evolved to live in highly collaborative groups, with strong interdependencies between individuals and in many cases between groups.

In our pre-civilised past all human groups were small, and interdependence and the need for mutual assistance was obvious to all members of a group.

The tools of civilisation, including money, have undermined our appreciation of interdependence, and within the Western world have culminated in a toxic cult of competitive individualism, which ironically leads to extreme levels of groupthink.

Evolutionary biologists consider small groups to be the organisms of human societies. This has massive implications for the gene-culture co-evolution that characterises our species.

Humans are not the first hyper-social species on this planet. Insects such as ants offer great examples of successful collaboration at immense scale over millions of years. Charles Darwin and other early proponents of evolutionary theory appreciated the role of collaboration within species and between species, but many of these early insights including related empirical observations have been suppressed within the hyper-competitive narrative that has come to dominate industrialised civilisation.

Note: Robin Dunbar’s observations on human cognitive limits apply. In a transactional world, collective intelligence goes down the drain. Hierarchical organisations with several thousand staff tend to act less intelligently than a single individual, and as group size grows further, intelligence tends towards zero.

Clamp down on meritocracy

Instead of establishing a “meritocracy“, catalyse the emergence of an egalitarian culture.

All forms of meritocracy result in toxic in-group competition and prevent knowledge from flowing to places where it can be put to good use.

“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” – David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson (2007)

Remove all incentives for in-group competition. Share risks and rewards equally, and encourage people to share their individual competency networks, without aggregating the data to determine rankings that interfere with the emergence of collective intelligence.

“Pay for merit, pay for what you get, reward performance. Sounds great, can’t be done. Unfortunately it can not be done, on short range. After 10 years perhaps, 20 years, yes. The effect is devastating. People must have something to show, something to count. In other words, the merit system nourishes short-term performance. It annihilates long-term planning. It annihilates teamwork. People can not work together. To get promotion you’ve got to get ahead. By working with a team, you help other people. You may help yourself equally, but you don’t get ahead by being equal, you get ahead by being ahead. Produce something more, have more to show, more to count. Teamwork means work together, hear everybody’s ideas, fill in for other people’s weaknesses, acknowledge their strengths. Work together. This is impossible under the merit rating / review of performance system. People are afraid. They are in fear. They work in fear. They can not contribute to the company as they would wish to contribute. This holds at all levels. But there is something worse than all of that. When the annual ratings are given out, people are bitter. They can not understand why they are not rated high. And there is a good reason not to understand. Because I could show you with a bit of time that it is purely a lottery. – W Edwards Deming (1984)

The notions of management and leadership are entangled with the anthropocentric conception of civilisation. In a hierarchical structure most people abandon their sense of agency and the need to think critically on a daily basis.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ― Buckminster Fuller (1975)

The path to escape the box of a sick society involves rediscovering timeless and minimalistic principles for coordinating creative collaboration in the absence of capital and hierarchical structures:

  1. Visibly extend trust to people, to release the handbrake to collaboration.
  2. Unlock valuable tacit knowledge within a group.
  3. Provide a space for creative freedom.
  4. Help repair frayed relationships.
  5. Replace fear with courage.

Note: As long as an organisation describes itself with a pyramidal organisational chart it projects a not-very-subtle-at-all signal that management by fear is to be tolerated by and is expected of anyone who joins.

Avoid distractions

Instead of “competing in the market”, build trusted relationships with other human scale groups.

Organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus (homo) is the genus that includes all cultural species.

The main difference between modern emergent human scale cultural species and prehistoric human scale cultural species lies in the language systems and communication technologies that are being used to coordinate activities and to record and transmit knowledge within cultural organisms, between cultural organisms, and between cultural species.

Collaborative niche construction allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and results in resilient social ecosystems. A few statistics from the Wikipedia list of oldest companies should provide food for thought:

  • According to a report published by the Bank of Korea in 2008 that looked at 41 countries, there were 5,586 companies older than 200 years. Of these, 3,146 (56%) are in Japan.
  • Of the companies with more than 100 years of history, most of them (89%) employ fewer than 300 people.
  • A nationwide Japanese survey counted more than 21,000 companies older than 100 years as of September 30, 2009.

Note: 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.

Share knowledge

Instead of hoarding and “monetising information”, distil patterns from your human scale environment and use an advice process to filter out the noise – only share trustworthy knowledge.

In a good company coordination and organisational learning happens without any need for social power structures. Before making a major decision that affects others:

  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.

Note: When all your trusted collaborators engage in this practice, the result is a growing network of individual competency networks.

Relax

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 priceless 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 global communication and collaboration.

A simple advice process establishes the vital feedback loops that enable organisations to learn and adapt in a timely manner, even in a highly dynamic context.

If you replace the toxic language of bu$yness, think long-term, enjoy interdependence, clamp down on meritocracy, avoid distractions, and share knowledge, you can relax. No one is in control. Mistakes happen on this planet all the time.

Like bees and ants, humans are eusocial animals. Through the lenses of evolutionary biology and cultural evolution, small groups of 20 to 100 people are the primary organisms within human society – in contrast to individuals, corporations, and nation states. The implications for our civilisation are profound, a topic that I explore in detail in my new book The beauty of collaboration at human scale – Timeless patterns of human limitations, which is now in the peer review stage.

Nurturing ecologies of care

The growing cracks in the thin veneer of our “civilised” economic and social operating model are impossible to ignore, to the extent that serious discussions of degrowth are increasingly finding their way into mainstream media.

No day goes by without further examples of how the logic of capital, whether privatised or in the hands of the state, gets in the way of meeting essential human needs, or actively undermines any attempt to address the needs of the non-human inhabitants of planet Earth.

“Civilised” humans are so self-absorbed that they conceptualise Earth as “their” planet without blinking an eye. It is impossible to paddle back from this extreme position without acknowledging the collective delusion induced by our “civilised” way of life.

How do we go about to construct ecological niches that contribute to the thriving of life on Earth rather than taking away from it? We have triggered the sixth mass extinction, and biodiversity is declining at unprecedented rates.

What ecological role do we want to play going forward? Note that we have successfully disqualified ourselves from the absurdly anthropocentric role of “owner”.

Are we still capable of relearning of how to engage with other species at eye level? We might be able to learn quite a bit from other less self-absorbed species.

Industrialised “civilisation” has not only triggered the loss of biodiversity, it has even compelled us to pathologise humans that don’t seem to be able to cope with the demands of “civilisation”, such that increasingly children are labelled with “developmental disorders”.

“Civilised” neuronormative humans are so dependent on the security blanket of culture, that their attempt to maintain a culturally defined sense of “normality” results in a tiny Overton window that is so narrow that every sixth person is excluded, pathologised, and ideally subjected to normalisation therapies, to better fit into so-called “normality”.

Apparently humans are not only bent on reducing biodiversity via pesticides, insecticides, destruction of habitats, and green house gas emissions, we also seem to be bent on reducing the neurodiversity that is inherent in our own species. The industrial paradigm of “civilisation” critically depends on a reliable source of compliant culturally “well adjusted” conformists.

Sadly David Graeber died few weeks ago. The world could have benefited more from his line of inquiry into industrialised bureaucracy. Here is an extract from his brilliant first lecture at LSE in 2006:

Bureaucracies public and private appear—for whatever historical reasons—to be organized in such a way as to guarantee that a significant proportion of actors will not be able to perform their tasks as expected. It also exemplifies what I have come to think of the defining feature of a utopian form of practice, in that, on discovering this, those maintaining the system conclude that the problem is not with the system itself but with the inadequacy of the human beings involved…

What I would like to argue is that situations created by violence—particularly structural violence, by which I mean forms of pervasive social inequality that are ultimately backed up by the threat of physical harm—invariably tend to create the kinds of willful blindness we normally associate with bureaucratic procedures. To put it crudely: it is not so much that bureaucratic procedures are inherently stupid, or even that they tend to produce behavior that they themselves define as stupid, but rather, that are invariably ways of managing social situations that are already stupid because they are founded on structural violence…

Bureaucratic knowledge is all about schematization. In practice, bureaucratic procedure invariably means ignoring all the subtleties of real social existence and reducing everything to preconceived mechanical or statistical formulae. Whether it’s a matter of forms, rules, statistics, or questionnaires, it is always a matter of simplification.

Usually it’s not so different than the boss who walks into the kitchen to make arbitrary snap decisions as to what went wrong: in either case it is a matter of applying very simple pre-existing templates to complex and often ambiguous situations. The result often leaves those forced to deal with bureaucratic administration with the impression that they are dealing with people who have for some arbitrary reason decided to put on a set of glasses that only allows them to see only 2% of what’s in front of them…

It only makes sense then that bureaucratic violence should consist first and foremost of attacks on those who insist on alternative schemas or interpretations. At the same time, if one accepts Piaget’s famous definition of mature intelligence as the ability to coordinate between multiple perspectives (or possible perspectives) one can see, here, precisely how bureaucratic power, at the moment it turns to violence, becomes literally a form of infantile stupidity…

The question for me is whether our theoretical work is ultimately directed at undoing, dismantling, some of the effects of these lopsided structures of imagination, or whether—as can so easily happen when even our best ideas come to be backed up by bureaucratically administered violence—we end up reinforcing them.

Beyond Power/Knowledge : an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity

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 cultural inertia. He conceptualised the revolt of the caring classes 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. What I write about may at times seem abstract, but it always relates to concrete initiatives and services that I am involved with. This article connects some of the topics that I have written about in recent years with related services provided by S23M or the Autistic Collaboration Trust.

Paddling back from lethal forms of monoculture

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. However, once we acknowledge our limitations, it is possible to learn from our mistakes, and also from the ways of life and the survival skills we cultivated in our pre-civilised past, which served us well for several hundred thousand years.

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.

I have written about the various shifts in values that are currently in progress. The following sections contain extracts and link to articles with further details and background.

Shifting from independence to interdependence

Appreciation of humility

The notion of disability in our society is underscored by a bizarre conception of “independence”.

Humans have evolved to live in highly collaborative groups, with strong interdependencies between individuals and in many cases between groups. In our pre-civilised past all human groups were small, and interdependence and the need for mutual assistance was obvious to all members of a group.

The tools of civilisation, including money, have undermined our appreciation of interdependence, and within the Western world have culminated in a toxic cult of competitive individualism, which amongst the non-autistic population ironically leads to extreme levels of groupthink.

Celebration of interdependence

If you consider any potential outcomes beyond a ten year time horizon the current path of industrialised “civilisation” must be described as a form of collective delusion.

COVID-19 punched a big hole into the progress myth of of our “civilisation” and has exposed cultural practices that have substantially increased the risks of pandemics over the last 50 years.

At this stage our societies are still in the early stages of (re)learning essential knowledge about pandemics. The growing risks of much deadlier pandemics emanating from industrial animal agriculture practices, natural ecosystem destruction, and accelerating climate change (also leading to increasingly extreme weather events, crop failures, and resource conflicts) are not yet part of the public discourse.

To what extent human societies will experience famines, wars, and violent revolutions in the coming decades depends on two factors:

1. How many governments pro-actively and systematically discount the interests of capitalised busyness in favour of the immediate and the long-term (200+ year horizon) needs of human communities and ecosystems.

2. The extent to which human communities deploy easily (re)configurable digital technologies that are co-designed to meet local and bioregional collaboration needs, to serve as the backbone for non-violent “revolutions” in shared values, shared knowledge commons, and new (much less energy intensive and more collaborative and diverse) ways of living.

From collective delusion to creative collaboration

Shifting from transactions to trusted relationships

Appreciation of mutual trust

Autists are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity.

Society must start to move beyond awareness and acceptance towards appreciation of cognitive diversity. The topic of culture is a double edged sword. On the one hand a shared culture can streamline collaboration, but on the other hand, the more open and diverse a culture, the more friendly it is towards minorities and outsiders.

It is very easy for groups of people and institutions to become preoccupied with specific cultural rituals and so-called cultural fit, whereas what matters most for collaboration and deep innovation is the appreciation of diversity and the development of mutual trust. This is obvious to many autistic people, but only very recently has cognitive diversity started to become recognised as genuinely valuable beyond the autistic community.

What society can learn from autistic culture

Shifting from hoarding information to sharing of knowledge

Appreciation of mutual understanding

By definition, we don’t understand all the people that we “don’t relate to”. In our busy civilised and hyper-social lives we come across far more than 150 people (Dunbar’s number). We interact within them on a transactional anonymous basis, and we may read about their lives, but it is impossible for us to fully understand their context, as we have not walked in their shoes from the first day in their lives, and thus lack the experience, the insights, and the tacit knowledge that shapes their unique world-views.

Thus, making decisions that potentially affect the lives of many hundred to several billion people without explicit consent of all those potentially affected, must be considered the pinnacle of human ignorance and is a strong indicator of a lack of compassion.

Prior to the information age, for several hundred thousand years humans lived in much smaller groups without written language, money, and cities. The archaeological evidence available and also the evidence from “uncivilised” indigenous cultures that have survived until recently in a few remote places point towards an interesting commonality in the social norms of such societies:

The strongest social norms in pre-civilised societies were norms that prevented individuals from gaining power over others.

“Civilisation” can be thought of as a social operating system that is afflicted by a collective learning disability induced by primate dominance hierarchies, which dampen feedback loops and flows of valuable knowledge. The result is a cultural inertia that perpetuates social power gradients and that discriminates against the discoverers of new knowledge that might undermine established social structures.

The exciting aspect about the human capacity for culture is that via a series of accidental discoveries and inventions, we have created a global network for sharing valuable knowledge, as well as opinions and misinformation. It apparently takes a virus like SARS-CoV-2 to put this network to good use, and to shift “civilised” cultural norms away from profit maximisation and back towards sharing knowledge for collective benefit.

The dawn of the second knowledge age

The 10,000 year project of human civilisation or empire building is coming to an end. Human life as we knew it – shaped by the anthropocentric myths of meritocracy, technological progress, and growth – is less and less compatible with our daily experiences and with the needs of all the people and other living creatures that we care about.

Since the Cold War empires have increasingly shifted their focus from overt conventional war to economic warfare and psychological warfare. The growing economic power imbalance between the empires of the “developed” world and “less developed” nation states has significantly reduced the need for large scale direct military interventions to maintain imperial power structures.

The mainstream narrative of conventional, economic, and psychological warfare of course prefers framing of the same activities using the language of defending national interests, economic development, disruptive innovation, and achieving economies of scale.

Framing is the key tool for detracting from the many millions of human and non-human casualties.

The underlying common theme across all imperial cultures is the concept of cultural superiority, which results in a sense of entitlement and a perpetual drive to out-compete and over-power groups with different and “inferior” cultures.

Even though Western science likes to think of itself as ideology neutral it is not immune to ideological influence. The Western scientific worldview continues to be plagued by artificial discipline boundaries that significantly slow down the process of transdisciplinary knowledge transfer and the discovery of new insights that remain hidden in the deep chasms between established disciplines.

We need a language to reason about the cultural superiority complex of imperial societies and potential therapies and cures. Such a language is not only useful in biology, but also in all contexts that relate to human social behaviour and human activity within the context of biological ecosystems at all levels of scale.

The Human Lens provides thirteen categories that are invariant across cultures, space, and time – it provides an economic ideology independent reasoning framework for transdisciplinary collaboration.

The Human Lens concepts are recognisable in all historic human cultures, and they will continue to be relevant in another 1,000 years – this is what is meant by “economic ideology independent”.

A language for catalysing cultural evolution

Shifting from scarcity of resources to abundance of mutual aid

Appreciation of creativity

If neurodiversity is the natural variation of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species, then what role do autistic traits in particular play within human cultures and what cultural evolutionary pressures have allowed autistic traits to persist over hundreds of thousands of years?

The benefits of autistic traits such as autistic levels of hypersensitivity, hyperfocus, perseverance, lack of interest in social status, and inability to maintain hidden agendas mostly do not materialise at an individual level but at the level of the local social environment that an autistic person is embedded in.

Within the bigger picture of cultural evolution autistic traits have obvious mid and long-term benefits to society, but these benefits are associated with short-term costs for social status seeking individuals within the local social environments of autistic people.

Many autistic people intuitively avoid copying the behaviours of non-autistic people. Life teaches autistic people that culturally expected behaviour often leads to sensory overload, and furthermore, that cultural practices often contain spurious complexity that have nothing to do with the stated goal of the various practices, such that a little independent exploration and experimentation usually reveals a simpler, faster, or less energy intensive way of achieving comparable results.

The unique human ability to adapt to new contexts, powered by neurodivergent creativity and the development of new tools, enabled humans to minimise conflicts and establish a presence in virtually all ecosystems on the planet. This level of adaptability is the signature trait of the human species.

Within “civilisation” autistic people tend to be highly concerned about social justice and tend to be the ones who point out toxic in-group competitive behaviours.

Autistic people are best understood as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human society. This would have been obvious in pre-civilised societies, but it has become non-obvious in “civilised” societies.

Autism – The cultural immune system of human societies

Shifting from death by standardisation to celebration of diversity

Appreciation of uniqueness

In some geographies the prevalence of autism within the population is now estimated to be 1 in 35. Overall, in the US, according to CDC data, 1 in 6 children has a “developmental disability”, and in the UK, according to the Department of Education, 15% (roughly 1 in 7) of students  have a “learning difference”.

I don’t have any issue with these numbers. In fact I am delighted that the extent to which people differ from one another is finally being recognised. But I do have an issue with the continuing pathologisation of people that don’t fit a standardised idealised (and hence fictional) human template. Even if we are seeing the first cracks in the pathology paradigm in relation to variances in neurocognitive functioning in the form of a partial shift from the language of disorder to condition and to difference, many of the traits associated with differences are still described in the pathologising language of diagnostic criteria.

The desire to categorise and standardise human behaviours is the underlying force of civilised societies, which reached new heights over the last 250 years, first with the mechanistic factory model of the world that defined the early industrial era, and then more recently, with the development of networked computers and with the emergence of automated information flows that currently shape significant parts of our lives and our interactions with people and with abstract technological agents.

Just because the majority of people, once they are fully programmed by our culture, perceives a growing minority of people (1 in 6) as not fully conforming to cultural expectations, does not mean that there is anything biologically or mentally wrong with these non-conformists. From a sociological and biological perspective the rising numbers of cultural non-conformists may just as well be seen as an indicator of an increasingly sick society characterised by cultural norms that are incompatible with human biological and social needs.

In our globally networked world individual inventors or small teams currently don’t have much if any control over the use of the technologies they create. Anthropocentrism and ignorance of human scale are the social diseases of our civilisation.

These diseases are obvious to most autistic people but they are only just beginning to be recognised by a growing number of people in wider society. Many signs are pointing towards a major cultural transformation based on a significant shift in values of younger generations that have grown up in an environment of continuous exploitation by technological monopolies.

Beyond peak human standardisation

Shifting from exponential growth to thriving life at human scale

Appreciation of collective intelligence

My working definition of intelligence: “finding a niche and thriving in the living world by creating good company, i.e. nurturing trusted relationships.”

In our world there is a silver lining to anything that reduces global – energy and resource hungry – busyness, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Governments now have a unique chance to switch to a new understanding of economics, i.e regenerative management of resources and waste, that is compatible with human life on this planet – or otherwise to ignore the opportunity and lapse back into suicidal busyness as usual.

Our society could benefit a lot from a permanent cultural shift towards reduced commutes into city centres, from reduced global travel, and from increased levels of remote knowledge work. A pandemic might turn out to be an effective catalyst.

Ideas that are genuinely beneficial for society and the planet are best propagated by the slow and valuable process of knowledge sharing at eye level in Open Space, allowing for critical enquiry, independent validation, refinement where needed, and transmission of essential locally relevant context.

Using tools of persuasion beyond peer-to-peer learning may well become a taboo in the not-too-distant future. Capitalists are starting to trip over their own competitive games, desperate for new ways of remaining relevant in a post-capitalist world. The level of fear is illustrated by this headline: “Data is not the new oil – it’s the new plutonium”.

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. We live in a society driven by fear. Always ask who benefits from the fear. Fear can induce panic but it can also catalyse courage.

The cycle of fear can only be broken by the creation and replication of islands of psychological safety. Encouragingly the number of such islands is growing.

If we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of human “civilisations”, the rules for coordinating at super-human scale will have to allow for and encourage a rich diversity of human scale organisations. In a human scale social world, apart from the self-imposed constraint of human scale, there is no universally dominant organisational paradigm.

The resulting web of interdependencies can simply be thought of as “the web of life” rather than “civilisation 2.0”. We must not to again make the anthropocentric mistake of putting humans at the centre of the universe.

Organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus is the genus that includes all cultural species.

Rediscovering human scale

In a transactional world, collective intelligence literally goes down the drain. In my experience, organisations with several thousand staff tend to act less intelligent than a single individual, and as group size grows further, intelligence tends towards zero.

The graph above assumes that as group size increases, people attempt to maintain more and more relationships – which end up deteriorating into transactional contacts with very limited shared understanding. The decline in collective intelligence can be avoided by consciously limiting the number of relationships of individuals, and by investing in trusted relationships between groups.

Hierarchical structures are inherently incompatible with the construction of trusted relationships within and between groups. Anyone who attempts to establish trusted relationships outside the hierarchical tree structure implicitly questions the effectiveness of the hierarchy, and thereby undermines one or more authorities within the structure.

The summary of existential risks in the following video is a good illustration of the full intelligence-destroying effect of hierarchical structures. Note that I don’t agree with the portrayal of the AI risks as being due to “superintelligence” – but I do see big risks. In the video the notion of “intelligence” remains undefined, and comparing different kinds of intelligence is like comparing apples and oranges, there is no linear scale.

If autistic people can’t always see the depth of the “bigger picture” of the office politics  around us it does not in any way mean that we don’t see the big picture. In fact we are aware of the big picture and often we zoom in from the biggest picture right down to our immediate context and then back out again, stopping at various levels in between that are potentially relevant to our context at hand. Office politics only distract from the genuinely bigger context. Accusing autistic people of not seeing the bigger picture perhaps illustrates the social disease that afflicts our society better than anything else.

Neurodiversity friendly forms of collaboration hold the potential to transform pathologically competitive and toxic teams and cultures into highly collaborative teams and larger cultural units that work together more like an organism rather than like a group of fighters in an arena.

Time and trusted collaboration are our scarcest resources. The former is a hard constraint and the latter is the critical cultural variable on which our future depends.

We have reached a point where human societies can choose between a “collapse of human ecological footprint” based on a conscious and significant reduction of cultural and technological complexity or an “ecological collapse, including human population collapse” resulting from a perpetuation of the behaviours that are slowly but surely killing us all. Realistically both kinds of collapse will occur in parallel, and some communities may be able to avoid the latter form of collapse to a larger extent than others.

Regardless of what route we choose, on this planet no one is in control. The force of life is distributed and decentralised, and it might be a good idea to organise accordingly.

Learning how to create collaborative environments for small “human scale” groups (good companies) creates a collaborative edge over other companies as no effort is wasted on in-group competition. This in turn significantly reduces the need to spend time on “winning” direct competitions with other companies. What happens instead is that other companies are increasingly intrigued by the company’s capability.

Education is essential. When beliefs that represent evidence based facts are propagated via a critical self-reflective process of education that is at least one order of magnitude slower than the process of social transmission (imitation/copying without any deeper understanding),  recipients – to a certain degree – are immunised against influence from those with opinions that contradict evidence based understanding.

Organising for neurodivergent collaboration

Shifting from quarterly results to 200+ year time horizons

Appreciation of endeavours that only deliver results for future generations

The catastrophic bush fires in Australia offer a good illustration of how people collaborate when confronted with the kinds of disasters that global heating will increasingly inflict on our societies.

The contrast between the mutual support that emerges within local communities and the behaviour of the most powerful person in the country is not surprising, but representative of a phenomenon that has been described as “elite panic”.

People 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. In the emerging social environment of disillusioned communities and citizens, you can neither buy trust nor investments that deliver a “return on capital”. Those who attempt it actually undermine their credibility and tie themselves to a sinking ship.

We are already much closer to a world without capital than capitalists would like us to believe. In many ways such a new world is much more desirable for most of us than the delusional world of infinite “growth” that we are still being sold.

From burning fossil fuels to burning capital

Human perception and human thought processes are strongly biased towards the time scales that matter to humans on a daily basis to the time scale of a human lifetime. Humans are largely blind to events and processes that occur in sub-second intervals and processes that are sufficiently slow. Similarly human perception is biased strongly towards living and physical entities that are comparable to the physical size of humans plus minus two orders of magnitude.

As a result of their cognitive limitations and biases, humans are challenged to understand non-human intelligences that operate in the natural world at different scales of time and different scales of size, such as ant colonies and the behaviour of networks of plants and microorganisms. Humans need to take several steps back in order to appreciate that intelligence may not only exist at human scales of size and time.

The extreme loss of biodiversity that characterises the anthropocene should be a warning, as it highlights the extent of human ignorance regarding the knowledge and intelligence that evolution has produced over a period of several billion years.

It is completely misleading to attempt to attach a price tag to the loss of biodiversity. Whole ecosystems are being lost – each such loss is the loss of a dynamic and resilient living system of accumulated local biological knowledge and wisdom.

It is delusional to think that humans are in control of what they are creating. The planet is in the process of teaching humans about their role in its development, and some humans are starting to respond to the feedback. Feedback loops across different levels of scale and time are hard for humans to identify and understand, but that does not mean that they do not exist.

A new form of global thinking is required that is not confined to the limited perspective of financial economics. The notions of fungibility and capital gains need to be replaced with the notions of collaborative economics and zero-waste cyles of economic flows.

Human capabilities and limitations are under the spot light. How long will it take for human minds to shift gears, away from the power politics and hierarchically organised societies that still reflect the cultural norms of our primate cousins, and from myopic human-centric economics, towards planetary economics that recognise the interconnectedness of life across space and time?

The big human battle of this century

Shifting from profitable busyness to good company

Rediscovering human potential and finding purpose in life

W.E.I.R.D. stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic. As long as society confuses homo economicus with homo sapiens we are more than “a bit off course”.

The exploitative nature of our “civilised” cultures is top of mind for many neurodivergent people. In contrast, many neuronormative people seem to deal with the trauma via denial, resulting in profound levels of cognitive dissonance.

Earlier this year I attended an online course on collective trauma, and once the trauma inflicted by the structural constraints imposed by our civilisation was mentioned, many participants had the courage to acknowledge this source of trauma.

The evolution of W.E.I.R.D. cultures can be easily understood from an anthropological perspective or via the social model of disability.

To move forward, we need to align our social operating systems with a more optimistic – and less ideologically constrained – perspective on human potential.

As human interactions are increasingly mediated by digital technologies, this entails acknowledging the ideological inertia of our current technologies. The bias that is baked into many of our technologies transforms all human interactions into a bizarre competitive game of likes, followers, and views.

W.E.I.R.D. societies face a choice between:

(A) Co-designing and embracing a less W.E.I.R.D. digital technosphere that catalyses new forms of collaboration and that actively discourages toxic competitive games.

(B) Officially renaming our species to homo economicus, and relying on W.E.I.R.D. technologies to squash any ideologically inconvenient collaborative or altruistic human tendencies.

In terms of developing a more collaborative social operating system it turns out we don’t have to start from scratch.

Pathologisation of life and neurodiversity in W.E.I.R.D. monocultures

Cultural evolution allows human society to evolve much faster than the speed of genetic evolution, which is constrained by the interval between generations. However, within any given society, the vast majority of people only experience a very limited sense of individual agency. Gene-culture co-evolution has led to a mix of capabilities in a group where:

1. The beliefs and behaviours of the vast majority of people are shaped by cultural transmission from the people around them – the majority of people primarily learn by imitation.

2. A minority of atypical people is much less influenced by cultural transmission – this minority learns by consciously observing the human and non-human environment, and then drawing inferences that form the basis of beliefs and behaviours.

The extremely important role that culture has played and still plays in human evolution represents a transformational change in the mechanisms available to evolution – it is a major step in the evolution of evolution, comparable to less than two handful of other major steps such as the emergence of the first cells, the emergence of multi-celled life forms, the emergence of sexual reproduction, etc.

Cultural evolution allows the behaviour of human societies to evolve much faster than the behaviour of other complex life forms, to the point that our collective knowledge and medical technologies allow us to engage in an evolutionary arms race with various strains of microbes that used to represent a serious threat to human health.

Whilst in some domains humans have been able to harness our capacity for culture for the benefit of all humans, in other domains our capacity for culture has been used to establish and operate highly oppressive and stratified societies.

Autistic culture is minimalistic, able to accommodate profound differences in individual cognitive lenses, and it is the source of deep innovation.

Mental health statistics tell us that mainstream culture has diverged too far from autistic culture. In many organisations bullying has reached toxic levels. Trends in mental health statistics in the wider population hint at a problem far beyond the autistic community. Large parts of society are already paralysed by irrational fear of change, i.e. “the system is bad but at least it’s familiar”.

To move forward we need a system of language tools and interaction patterns that allow the people within small groups to increase their level of shared understanding.

The evolution of evolution

The objectives of the autism and neurodiversity civil rights movements overlap significantly with the interests of those who advocate for greater levels of psychological safety in the workplace and in society in general.

In the workplace the topic of psychological safety is relevant to all industries and sectors. Creating and maintaining a psychologically safe environment is fundamental for the flourishing of all staff, yet in most organisations psychological safety is the exception rather than the norm.

Given our first hand experience with innovation in these sectors and our involvement in autistic self advocacy and neurodiversity activism, the S23M team has decided to conduct a global survey on psychological safety in the workplace. The resulting data will be of particular interest for autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people who are experiencing bullying and more or less subtle forms of discrimination at work.

You can assist our effort by participating in the survey, and by encouraging your friends to participate in the survey.

In search of psychological safety

Tools for catalysing change

For our journey into the future we need appropriate tools for addressing challenges and needs over different time horizons.

Below is an overview of tools that I have been involved in developing. Many of these tools are available in the public domain and can be accessed free of charge by individuals and small companies. Please get in touch in case you have questions regarding any of these resources.

Short-range tools for survival

  1. Bullying alert service for employees
  2. Employer psychological safety rating service

Mid-range tools for healthier lives

  1. UnConference on Interdisciplinary Innovation and Collaboration
  2. Trans Tasman Knowledge Exchange for the healthcare sector
  3. Community oriented and patient centric health service co-design
  4. Software services for catalysing collaboration across the healthcare sector

Long-range tools for multi-generational cultural evolution

  1. The Neurodiventure operating model for worker cooperatives

A language for catalysing cultural evolution

The 10,000 year project of human civilisation or empire building is coming to an end. Human life as we knew it – shaped by the anthropocentric myths of “meritocracy”, technological “progress”, and “growth” – is less and less compatible with our daily experiences and with the needs of all the people and other living creatures that we care about.

A brief history of the end of the era of human empires

The discovery of Antarctica by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev in 1820 can serve as a useful working definition for the beginning of the end of the “civilised” human “conquest” of the planet. From that point onwards no significant territories remained to be discovered and claimed, and the competition between “civilised” empires increasingly focused on dominating the biggest chunks of the known finite planetary pie of territories, people, and “resources”.

The industrial revolution and the systematic discovery and exploitation of coal and oil reserves provided human societies with new and seemingly endless sources of energy for machine assisted human busyness and material infrastructure development and artefact creation. Like teenagers discovering the growing physical powers of their bodies, entire societies were enthralled by their new found physical powers, and started probing the limits of what is possible, often at the expense of neighbours who had not yet caught the bug of industrialised “progress”, which could very conveniently be quantified in terms of material “productivity” and “efficiency”.

The increasing reliance on energy hungry machines for maintaining and advancing material progress had a major influence on human cultural evolution, leading to the celebration of feats of human engineering and a growing belief in a causal link between mechanisation and “progress”, and an association of machines with “progress”.

The invention of the voltaic cell in 1800 by Alessandro Volta paved the path for the development of electric telegraphy in the 1830s, the telephone a few decades later, and wireless telegraphy and radio in the period of 1890 to 1920. These developments enabled new forms of communication and facilitated further cultural evolution via the quasi-instantaneous propagation of (mis)information to large numbers of people across arbitrary distances.

Enabled by machine power, radio technology, and the hierarchically organised cultural institutions of empires, the human “leaders” of the 20th century triggered the most deadly wars in human history, culminating in the development and deployment of nuclear weapons.

Most people don’t voluntarily sign up for a war with their neighbours, but the rise of mass communication and manipulation technologies proved to be highly effective for propagating superiority myths, and for dehumanising the people of “less advanced” cultures and those who don’t conform to the culturally prescribed template of “normality”.

Since the Cold War empires have increasingly shifted their focus from overt conventional war to economic warfare and psychological warfare. The growing economic power imbalance between the empires of the “developed” world and “less developed” nation states has significantly reduced the need for large scale direct military interventions to maintain imperial power structures. “Civilised” warfare in the 21st century consists of the following components:

  1. Global economic institutions are equipped with the ability to dictate the terms on which nation states with limited financial power are able to engage with the rest of the world (economic warfare).
  2. The reserve banks of states with significant financial power use the dial of interest rates and their ability to issue credit to shape the global economic “climate” (economic warfare).
  3. The financial power of largest transnational corporations exceeds the financial powers of the majority of nation states, and incrementally, the balance of power shifts further from governments towards transnational corporations (economic warfare).
  4. Individuals with significant financial wealth are empowered to wield significant influence over the transnational corporations that they have invested in, and as a result they also wield significant influence over the economic “climate” in many nation states (economic warfare).
  5. Transnational corporations use their financial power (often in combination with local or domain specific monopolistic powers) to bathe entire populations in a never ending stream of PR and marketing messages, assisted by profit oriented media organisations that depend on corporate advertising revenue (economic warfare and psychological warfare).
  6. Whilst the governments of financially powerful nation states are strongly influenced by the financial powers of transnational corporations, they remain the official operators of military power, and use these powers for “surgical” strikes as needed to prevent smaller nation states from ever ignoring the established imperial “rules of the game” (conventional warfare and psychological warfare).

The effects of economic warfare are conveniently indirect but very effective and brutal.

Around one in ten children are born with a low birth weight, and in South Asia, it is one in four, and approximately 45% of deaths among children under five are linked to undernutrition. These deaths often occur in low- and middle-income countries where childhood obesity levels are rising at the same time. Nutrition is the main cause of death and disease in the world. The developmental, economic, social and medical impacts of malnutrition are serious and lasting.

World Health Organisation, 2019

Nine out of ten people breathe polluted air every day. In 2019, air pollution is considered by WHO as the greatest environmental risk to health. Microscopic pollutants in the air can penetrate respiratory and circulatory systems, damaging the lungs, heart and brain, killing 7 million people prematurely every year from diseases such as cancer, stroke, heart and lung disease. Around 90% of these deaths are in low- and middle-income countries, with high volumes of emissions from industry, transport and agriculture, as well as dirty cookstoves and fuels in homes.

Noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, are collectively responsible for over 70% of all deaths worldwide, or 41 million people. This includes 15 million people dying prematurely, aged between 30 and 69. Over 85% of these premature deaths are in low- and middle-income countries.

More than 1.6 billion people (22% of the global population) live in places where protracted crises (through a combination of challenges such as drought, famine, conflict, and population displacement) and weak health services leave them without access to basic care.

World Health Organisation, 2019

The effects of psychological warfare can be seen in the dissonance between the narratives that transnational corporations tell about themselves and:

  1. their low contribution to the tax revenues and in some cases their ability to influence tax policies,
  2. the ecological externalities that they create,
  3. the extent to which their activities amount to amplification of economic inequalities via financial speculation that is disconnected from the production and recycling of life sustaining necessities,
  4. their ability to undercut local companies that offer superior services (with less ecological and economic externalities).

Economists estimate that financial speculation amounts to at least 50% of global economic activity.

Tax policies that provide favourable economic conditions for transnational corporations and financial investors have had the following effect:

Between 1990 and 2020, U.S. billionaire wealth soared 1,130 percent in 2020 dollars, an increase more than 200 times greater than the 5.37 percent growth of U.S. median wealth over this same period. Between 1980 and 2018, the tax obligations of America’s billionaires, measured as a percentage of their wealth, decreased 79 percent.

Institute for Policy Studies, 2020

The very concept of economic value creation has been hijacked by the beneficiaries of increasing levels of financialisation in developed economies:

What we value and how we value it is one of the most contested, misunderstood and important ideas in economics. Economist Mariana Mazzucato’s comprehensive “The Value of Everything” explores how ideas about what value is, where it comes from and how it should be distributed have changed in the past 400 years, and why value matters now more than ever. Mazzucato emphasizes the need to reopen debate to make economies more productive, equitable and sustainable. The 2008 financial crisis was just a taste of looming problems — climate disruption, massive biodiversity and ecosystem-services decline, even the possible collapse of Western civilization — unless we learn to value what really matters.

The international System of National Accounts and gross domestic product (GDP) both value economic activity on the basis of market transactions — only goods and services sold in markets are counted. Much of that activity is beneficial, but some is best seen as a cost to be avoided. GDP conflates the two. For instance, growth of crime demands more police and security devices; these add to GDP, but more crime is not desirable. Increases in air and water pollution, serious illness and divorce are all counted as positive in GDP, whereas the distribution of income is ignored, as are the value of household and volunteer work, ecosystem services and community support. As economist and statistician Simon Kuznets, GDP’s main architect, warned, a country’s welfare cannot be inferred from GDP: “Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what.”

Mazzucato argues persuasively that GDP is a “hodge-podge” that “invites lobbying rather than reasoning about value”. She notes that it “justifies excessive inequalities of income and wealth and turns value extraction into value creation”.

How to retool our concept of value, Nature, 2018

The mainstream narrative of conventional, economic, and psychological warfare of course prefers framing of the same activities using the language of defending national interests, economic development, disruptive innovation, and achieving economies of scale.

Framing is the key tool for detracting from the many millions of human and non-human casualties.

The underlying common theme across all imperial cultures is the concept of cultural superiority, which results in a sense of entitlement and a perpetual drive to out-compete and over-power groups with different and “inferior” cultures.

The limits of the Western scientific worldview

The notion of life as a competitive game found its way into the science of biology by interpreting Darwin’s theory of evolution through the cultural lens of capitalism. The complementary perspective of life and evolution as a cooperative game as described by Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution in 1902 was largely ignored in “developed” capitalist societies throughout most of the 20th century.

In the capitalist narrative the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic success of China following Mao’s death are interpreted as evidence for the superiority of capitalism and market based competition over other forms of organising economic activity. In the Western “developed” world, capitalist ideology developed a symbiotic relationship with the science of evolutionary biology, culminating in books such as “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins in 1975 and in the hyper-competitive interpretations of human nature that are baked into Neoliberal ideology.

For many years evolutionary biologists such as E.O Wilson (sometimes referred to as “the father of sociobiology” and “the father of biodiversity”), Elisabet Sahtouris, and David Sloan Wilson, who where exploring alternative framings and complementary aspects of biological evolution (cooperation in the evolution of social species, multi-level selection theory, and gene-culture co-evolution), did not receive much attention.

Only in the last 20 years have the cooperative aspect of evolution and multi-level selection theory been more widely recognised as a valid theoretical framework for evolution in general, including in the context of gene-culture co-evolution.

In parallel with the growing awareness of the role of cooperation in evolution, critical views of capitalism have become part of the allowable sphere of academic and political discourse in Western “developed” societies, whilst in the “real” world of corporate business the competitive view of economic life still dominates.

Even though Western science likes to think of itself as ideology neutral it is not immune to ideological influence. The Western scientific worldview continues to be plagued by artificial discipline boundaries that significantly slow down the process of transdisciplinary knowledge transfer and the discovery of new insights that remain hidden in the deep chasms between established disciplines.

The ideological influence in Western science is visible in metrics of academic success such as the number of publications in journals and various journal ranking schemes. Academics have to conform to predetermined criteria of success and “productivity” if they want to climb the career ladder in universities and research institutions that are run as profit generating businesses, especially in countries that have fully embraced the Neoliberal ideology.

This (short) talk from 2011 and (longer) interview from 2020 with Elisabet Sahtouris provide a good introduction to a broader and more inclusive framing of evolutionary theory that also acknowledges the value of insights that are part of alternative non-Western frameworks of knowledge and reasoning.

There is a lot to be learned from traditions outside the Western monoculture of busyness. In New Zealand for example, Māori researchers are working towards an Economy of Mana that aims to better provide for Māori aspirations in all realms of life.

In this article I relate gene-culture co-evolution to the role of neurodiversity in human societies from an anthropological perspective, including references to relevant academic literature. Over the last 20 years Western societies have increasingly pathologised neurodiversity and in particular autistic people who do not readily and subconsciously absorb cultural norms from their social environment. I have severe concerns about the pathologisation of people that don’t fit a standardised (and hence fictional) human template. The notion of disability in Western societies is underscored by a bizarre conception of “independence”.

Understanding the superiority complex of empires

It is time to consider the possibility of a social disease and that manifests in sick cultural norms and sick institutions rather than in individual “inmates”. Pretending that there is nothing wrong with our cultural norms and institutions only generates disastrous mental health statistics that deflect from the deeper problems that need to be addressed.

At the level of small (human scale) groups, the NeurodiVenture model provides a set of first principles for creative collaboration that can be implemented in appropriate ways to accommodate local needs. The prosocial principles that are part of the NeurodiVenture model not only provide guidance for collaboration within the group, but also for collaboration with other groups, and thereby they pave the path for the development of collaborative bioregional networks of NeurodiVentures and other human scale groups.

Many scientists are blind to the limits of quantitative techniques. 30 years of working in the capacity of a “knowledge archaeologist” (surfacing tacit knowledge from domain expertise in all kinds of disciplines and making it explicit and validating/refining it in transdisciplinary groups in a form that catalyses shared understanding) have taught me to appreciate the value of visual conceptual models of human knowledge and motivations.

Biologists like David Sloan Wilson and Daniel Christian Wahl have recognised the need for a common language for reasoning about multi-level complex collaborative systems that are subject to evolutionary forces. We need a language to reason about the cultural superiority complex of imperial societies and potential therapies and cures.

Such a language is not only useful in biology, but also in all contexts that relate to human social behaviour and human activity within the context of biological ecosystems at all levels of scale. The formal visual conceptual languages of the MODA + MODE human lens and the ecological lens have been designed specifically for this purpose.

Visual diagrams in the notation of the human lens and the ecological lens

(including less formal concept diagrams that people intuitively produce when collaborating around a whiteboard) for reasoning about multi-level complex collaborative systems work so well because they map directly to the networked and metaphor based structure of our mental models – much more so than the linear language which we speak and write.

The human lens provides thirteen categories that are invariant across cultures, space, and time – it provides an economic ideology independent reasoning framework for transdisciplinary collaboration.

The human lens allows us to make sense of the world and the natural environment from a human perspective, to evolve our value systems, and to structure and adapt human endeavours accordingly.

All 13 human lens concepts reflect foundational aspects of human cognition and the human capacity for symbolic thought within an ecological context, and are found in all cultures under various labels.

The human lens concepts are recognisable in all historic human cultures, and they will continue to be relevant in another 1,000 years – this is what is meant by “economic ideology independent”.

This is important because language is always a contentious topic in a transdisciplinary context, since each discipline uses a different language. The human lens can be used to model all aspects of the relationships between economic agents and all aspects of collaboration within economic agents. Expressed in the human lens, human life at human scale can be described in terms of feedback across levels of scale as follows:

Adding the fiction of homo economicus into the picture yields:

The textual labels I chose reflect my personal bias, but the depicted agents and the links between them simply represent undeniable resource and information flows. Enforcing the ideology of homo economicus has the following effects:

Colour coding the stressed agents and the primary and secondary economic “externalities” produces the following picture:

Using the same colour coding, zooming into capitalised busyness, the actors in the global economic theatre and their roles can be visualised as follows:

Zooming back out to the summary of life at human scale, and visualising the core symptoms of our sick cultures yields:

Humans have been aware of the growing ecological crisis triggered by industrialised societies for more than 60 years. We know and feel what is wrong, but without an adequate language we are not able to pinpoint the most promising leverage points for interventions at a systemic level.

Knowledge distillation, conservation, and transfer

The visual languages of the human lens and the living agent lens are useful for distilling and refining knowledge in a small group environment. Knowledge conservation over long time horizons and effective knowledge transfer to outsiders can be catalysed by the ongoing maintenance of five complementary representations of knowledge:

  1. Collective tacit domain knowledge within a group about a specific domain.
  2. Explicit visual models of tacit knowledge that reflect the results of a SECI knowledge creation spiral in the language of the human lens.
  3. Software tool support for data structures that correspond 1-to-1 to the formal visual models.
  4. Model validation via instantiation in terms of sample information model instances that are easily recognisable by those who contributed their tacit knowledge to the modelling effort.
  5. A document that contains one or more narratives that walks readers who may not have been involved in the modelling effort through the sample model instances. The number of narratives needed depend on the diversity of the sample model instances and the complexity of the domain.

This level of attention to knowledge validation and transfer is rarely achieved in industrialised societies that confuse busyness with productivity, persuasiveness with the “key to personal success”, and consumption with a “high standard of living”. The resulting over-emphasis on persuasive storytelling and the corresponding loss of appreciation of tacit knowledge and models with explanatory power is a major cause for concern.

A few years ago Alan Kay, a pioneer of object-oriented programming and windowing graphical user interface design observed:

It used to be the case that people were admonished to “not re-invent the wheel”. We now live in an age that spends a lot of time “reinventing the flat tire!”

The flat tires come from the reinventors often not being in the same league as the original inventors. This is a symptom of a “pop culture” where identity and participation are much more important than progress. … In the US we are now embedded in a pop culture that has progressed far enough to seriously hurt places that hold “developed cultures”.

My measure of success for S23M, our employee owned company, is tied to a 200+ year time horizon. We strive to create good company for all our team members. If all the pairwise relationships between team members and the relationships with our customers and partners are in good health, then the company is in good health. The company was founded in 2002 and will be successful if it is still healthy and alive in 200 years according to the same criteria.

A few statistics (Wikipedia list of oldest companies) that should provide food for thought for the disciples of Neoliberalism and “sustainable economic growth”:

  • According to a report published by the Bank of Korea in 2008 that looked at 41 countries, there were 5,586 companies older than 200 years. Of these, 3,146 (56%) are in Japan.
  • Of the companies with more than 100 years of history, most of them (89%) employ fewer than 300 people.
  • A nationwide Japanese survey counted more than 21,000 companies older than 100 years as of September 30, 2009.

Last week I was thrilled to read about a company that operates on a 500 year time horizon:

While most companies might plan five years ahead at most, Māori company Kono is looking 500 years into the future. The company wants to be a good kaitiaki (caretaker) of the more than 1000 hectares of land and sea it farms at the top of the South Island. Kono chief executive Rachel Taulelei says the company works intergenerationally and has a “clear responsibility” to ensure its assets and resources will still be here in 500 years. Kono is the food and beverage arm of Wakatū Incorporation, a Nelson company that represents around 4000 owner families, all affiliated to at least one of four iwi at the top of the South Island – Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Koata, Te Ātiawa and Ngāti Tama.

Kono embraces regenerative agriculture as part of 500 year vision

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 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 correspondence extends to core events and activities in software product line design and engineering and in evolutionary processes:

The above streams of activities and feedback loops map to:

The correspondence is no accident. Software companies that combine deep domain specific expertise with the capability to conduct experiments and a commitment to systematic commonality and variability analysis 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 (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, 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.

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 (selection of common features that are useful for specific categories/species of customers that use the product line),
  3. product engineering (replication of best engineering practices in the assembly of concrete products for specific customers).
  4. product line operations (sustaining the provision of services to customers and processing feedback from customers).

The members within each team collaborate on a daily basis, whereas the collaboration between the four teams is based on weekly, monthly and quarterly feedback loops.

Open sharing of knowledge in precise notations, creative collaboration with customers, conscious experimental design, and parallel experiments replace information hoarding, deception, social competition, and the not-so-invisible hand of the market.

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.

Externally, 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 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 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 dictate the possible communication and collaboration patterns, and in doing so may decide to optimise for maximum

  • “engagement” with their platforms,
  • “advertising revenue”,
  • “information extraction” about user preferences,

not in order to serve the needs of users (who may want to collaborate with peers in other locations on topics and problems that matters to their life), but ultimately to maximise the “return on investment” for the owners of the platform in the metrics of success prescribed by the sick 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 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 screens 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

  1. to reduce misunderstandings,
  2. to catalyse knowledge flows and a greater level of shared understanding,
  3. and to 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 have been co-designed with the communities and organisations that use the software, to catalyse adherence to communally agreed patterns of collaboration, and to automate administrative chores.

Coordinating collaboration at super-human scale

Humans are the local world champions of self delusion on this planet. In particular we are prone to overestimating our ability to understand each other. However, once we appreciate that even our “educated” Western scientific worldview is not free from ideological bias, we can develop a better conceptual model of how individual and collective human belief systems and related bodies of knowledge evolve.

It is helpful to distinguish the following categories of beliefs and related knowledge:

  1. Beliefs based on scientific theories backed by empirical evidence that we are intimately familiar with. Such beliefs may be affected by paradigmatic bias and the quality or bias inherent in the supporting evidence. We need to be cognisant of corresponding blind spots in our understanding of the world when applying such beliefs in our reasoning.
    Only a small minority of our beliefs fall into this category.
  2. Beliefs based on scientific theories backed by empirical evidence that we are not intimately familiar with. Such beliefs may be affected by paradigmatic bias and the quality or bias inherent in the supporting evidence. We have no idea of the potential blind spots in our understanding of the world when applying such beliefs in our reasoning. In the few cases where the theories have been developed by trusted friends and colleagues within our personal competency network, we can decide to rely on their understanding of the limits of applicability and potential blind spots.
    If we are “educated”, a sizeable minority of our beliefs fall into this category.
  3. Beliefs based on personal experiences and observations. We know that no human can maintain more than 150 relationships with other people, and that all our assumptions about the lives and needs of humans are based on the very small set of people that we relate to.
    For those who identify as autistic, a significant number of beliefs held (possibly the majority) fall into this category.
    By definition, we don’t understand all the people that we “don’t relate to”. Thus, making any decisions that potentially affect the lives of many hundred to several billion people without explicit consent of all those potentially affected (a daily occurrence in government institutions and corporations), must be considered the pinnacle of human ignorance.
  4. Beliefs that represent explicit social agreements between specific people regarding communication and collaboration. Such agreements can be verbal or in writing. Some agreements, such as laws issued by regional or national governments, apply to large groups of people and have been developed with limited input from those who are affected.
    For those who identify as autistic, a significant number of beliefs held fall into this category, especially agreements with family members, friends, and colleagues.
  5. Beliefs based on what others have told us and what we have been encouraged to believe by parents, teachers, and friends, … and politicians and advertisers, including beliefs that we have absorbed from our social environment subconsciously, i.e. beliefs for which we can’t recall the origin.
    For those who do not identify as autistic, the majority of beliefs held fall into this category.

All categories of human beliefs are associated with some level of uncertainty regarding the validity and applicability to a specific context at hand. A belief in the universally competitive nature of homo economicus falls into the fifth category. When beliefs related to Neoliberal ideology are reflected in laws (category 4. above), they are internalised as cultural norms by large parts of the population, and when the externalities of hyper-competitive profit maximising behaviour hit with full force, homo economicus has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Autistic people can be considered as the cultural immune system of human societies. They are less influenced by socially transmitted and subconsciously absorbed beliefs (category 5). Laws and rules that depathologise autism and protect the rights of neurominorities could go a long way towards re-establishing a healthy cultural immune system within society that is capable of containing and stamping out social diseases such as Neoliberal ideology.

Towards wise societies

Once we concede human human cognitive limits (Dunbar’s number) and the lack of “scientific” evidence based justification for most of our cultural norms, we can begin to grasp the possibilities that open up when we commit to developing a more appropriate set of explicit agreements for communication and collaboration that:

  1. encourage trusted collaboration at human scale (consistent with our scientific understanding of human cognitive limits);
  2. position the prosocial principles as the foundation for all collaboration between different groups (consistent with the available evidence from societies that are effective at managing shared resources in sustainable ways);
  3. encourage the use of creative collaboration and in particular Open Space Technology for co-designing and evolving agreements for communication and collaboration between groups at super-human scale;
  4. encourage the development and evolution of locally, regionally, and globally appropriate Open Source software platforms that serve as a language system for communication and collaboration at all levels of scale, in accordance with locally, regionally, and globally agreed rules and laws.

The Internet allows all scientific knowledge, including related evidence and analytical tools, as well as all explicit social agreements to be shared globally, for mutual learning. The future of “globalisation” is not one of energy intensive global busyness (trade of physical goods and resources) but one of a global knowledge commons that is maintained in perpetuity for the benefit of all current and future human societies.

At (local) human scale, global or national statistical averages about humans and human behaviour become meaningless.

In local and regional systems of knowledge explicit social agreements regarding codes of conduct and personal experiences with specific individuals in the local context are as important as globally applicable evidence based scientific knowledge.

Conversely, at global and national scales, elaborate explicit social agreements for codes of conduct inevitably gloss over locally relevant environmental conditions, and can easily do more harm than good, and the same applies to assumptions that are based on the personal experiences of individuals.

Global agreements for collaboration need to be grounded in evidence based science that relates to our understanding of planetary limits and ecosystem health.

Local cultures that strive to be inclusive and committed to providing for the needs of their neurominorities and other vulnerable minorities will discover that they enjoy a collaborative and creative advantage that optimally equips them to adapt to rapidly changing environmental conditions.

Inclusive cultures catalyse trusted collaboration at a bioregional scale and contribute valuable insights to the global knowledge commons.

It is fitting to conclude this article with a few observations from evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris:

In 1800 only 3% of the human population lived in cities; their exponential rate of growth shows well over half of us are now in urban areas, and predictions for 2050 have 70% of us living in cities worldwide—a percentage that holds already, and is even higher, in some developed countries. The overall trend is clear and if nation states fail under the burden of our perfect storm of crises, cities will have to play ever more important roles in all aspects of human civilization.

The internal problems cities face now are the same glaring ones facing their nations and their world—joblessness, homelessness, health crises, unequal educational and other opportunities, racial tensions, environmental degradation, energy grid failures, traffic congestion, political corruption and so on. Thirteen of our twenty largest cities globally, as well as far more smaller ones, are coastal. Their sealevel airports, piers and sewage systems, as well as other infrastructure and populations, are directly threatened by climate change, as is already evident.

Our hope lies in the resilience of humanity itself—in the vast array of opportunities for engaging the citizenry of cities in peaceful means of solving their problems and developing resilience in the face of oncoming disasters. Inspiring and building internal cooperation through truly democratic citizen engagement, each city can solve problems and become a healthy partner and role model for other cities.….

A tale of cities and cells, Elisabet Sahtouris

To explain my intention for ‘ecosophy,’ let me go back a few decades to tell a personal story. During the first Clinton administration in the early ‘90s, I lived in Washington DC and attended the meetings of the President’s Commission on Sustainability with great interest and hope. At the end of one lengthy debate on whether the commission needed to include economics, when its mandate was only concern with environmental issues, I was fortunate to be given three minutes to address the commission.

As the debate had been heavily weighted against including economics and I had so very little time, I pointed out the etymology of the two words, economy and ecology. Both words come from the ancient Greek word for household: oikos (pronounced ee’ kos, at least in modern Greek). The word ‘economy’ (oikos + nomos = oikonomia) means the rule or governance of the household. The word ‘ecology’ (oikos + logos = oikologia) means the creative organization of the household.

I asked, “How can we talk about only one of the most important aspects of running our human household without the other? The problem is not whether to integrate economy with ecology, but that we have separated them.” I added my hope that they invite a child and a Native American grandmother to their future deliberations—the child to remind them for whom they were working; the grandmother to remind them of the need for wisdom, as well as consideration of future generations, preferably seven of them. That completed my three minutes.

It is in concert with these root meanings of ecology and economy that I give the word ‘ecosophy’ (oikos + sophia = oikosophia) the meaning it would have had in ancient Greece, had it come into use there:

Ecosophy: wisely run household of human affairs
or, even more simply:
Wise Society

The perfect storm of crises we now face may well prove to be the challenge that drives us into our greatest evolutionary leap. Economy must be made subservient to ecology if we want to continue our life on Earth as a healthy, embedded global human society. Economy based on principles of a conscious universe’s mature ecosystems, including that of our bodies, becomes Ecosophy. We know deep in our hearts and souls that this must be done; all we need is the courage to lead the way for all!

Ecosophy : Nature’s guide to a better world, Elisabet Sahtouris

The dawn of the second knowledge age

profit

The myth of progress

Capitalism, via the construction of abstract tokens as interest bearing debt, maximises the efficiency of the accumulation of abstract tokens, specifically it maximises the accumulation of abstract tokens in the hands of those institutions and individuals that claim to have the “authority” to issue debt and that design the social rules around the transfer, repackaging, and annulment of debt.

As long as access to capital affords individuals the “right” to make decisions that significantly impact on the lives of others, the distribution of debt and ownership rights related to land and means of production in society have a huge influence over the well-being of communities and families. This state of affairs is highly problematic, as all humans have limited cognitive capacity and limited ability to understand the lives and needs of other people.

The more capital an individual accumulates, the more their decisions start to impact the lives of hundreds, thousands, and in some cases millions and billions of people.

At the same time, we know that no human can maintain more than 150 relationships with other people, and that all our assumptions about the lives and needs of humans are based on the very small set of people that we relate to. By definition, we don’t understand all the people that we “don’t relate to”. In our busy civilised and hyper-social lives we come across far more than 150 people (Dunbar’s number). We interact within them on a transactional anonymous basis, and we may read about their lives, but it is impossible for us to fully understand their context, as we have not walked in their shoes from the first day in their lives, and thus lack the experience, the insights, and the tacit knowledge that shapes their unique world-views.

Thus, making decisions that potentially affect the lives of many hundred to several billion people without explicit consent of all those potentially affected, must be considered the pinnacle of human ignorance and is a strong indicator of a lack of compassion.

Of course many societies acknowledge the dangers associated with big social power gradients and like to present themselves as democratic, pointing to regular elections and legislation that is developed by democratically elected representatives, claiming that this allows all citizens to contribute to important decisions that shape the operating model of society. There are numerous problems with this naive claim:

  1. At national, regional, and even municipal level, each elected office holder represents a number of people that far exceeds the human cognitive limit of 150.
  2. In many societies citizens only have very limited ability and opportunity to contribute to discussions and important decisions that will affect their lives beyond the participation in elections every few years.
  3. In most societies immense amounts of decision making powers are concentrated at the national, regional, and municipal levels, and the decision making powers at the level of local communities are quite limited. Social power gradients manifest in pyramidal organisational designs within government institutions and corresponding communication structures.
  4. In a rapidly changing world that is affected by human induced climate change and ecological collapse, elections every few years represent a feedback loop that is far too slow for preventing further damage to the highly complex ecological systems that enable human existence on this planet.
  5. All modern “civilised” societies rely on the construction of abstract tokens as interest bearing debt and related tools (interest rates, government bonds, etc.) as a key means for influencing economic activity within their jurisdiction. This delegates significant decision making powers to small privileged elites who are granted preferential access to financial capital.
  6. Capitalised profit maximising corporations are not subject to democratic governance. Instead shareholders and their representatives have the ability to implement whatever organisational design they deem most appropriate for profit maximisation – usually a pyramidal management structure that treats employees and suppliers as resources to be exploited. Once a profit maximising corporation has acquired a monopoly position in a particular domain, it even treats customers as a resource to be exploited. In most jurisdictions the cost of penalties for ignoring or subverting antitrust legislation is negligible.
  7. Just like in many government organisations the number of employees in corporations often far exceeds the human cognitive limit of 150. As a result not only do shareholders, who are often not employed by the organisation, wield a huge influence, but the appointed top level managers regularly make decisions that affect many hundred or thousands of employees.
  8. The fixation on governance via abstract monetary metrics and controls (debt creation, budget allocation, interest rates, various forms of taxation, tax rates, etc.) leads to extremely over-simplified models of economic activity and contributes to an illusion of control, whilst creating huge blind spots for externalities that can’t be articulated in monetary metrics. Concepts such as the triple bottom line are well meaning but woefully inadequate attempts for shedding light on the blind spots created by the heavy reliance on monetary metrics. Ignorance is not a good foundation for decision making.
  9. An honest analysis of the measurable “achievements” of democratic governance as exemplified in current practices in the so-called “developed” world paints a dim picture of collective human intelligence: human activities have triggered the sixth mass extinction event on this planet, billions of humans are malnourished, our ecological footprint has been unsustainable for several decades, and the climate is changing at a rate that is orders of magnitudes faster than all earlier climatic changes in the history of the planet. And even in the light of all these results, monetary metrics are still used as the foundation for economic discussion and decision making.

The systematic analysis of earlier human “civilisations” (societies with cities, written language, and money) conducted by historian Joseph Tainter shows us that so far all “civilisations” have eventually “collapsed”, i.e. they have resulted in a much less centralised and less resource intensive organisation of human affairs.

For observations on the obsolescence of the current capitalist economic operating system in particular, I recommend listening to this very timely interview with anthropologist David Graeber, the author of Debt, The First 5,000 Years.

“Normal” is like standing on the railway tracks, looking at the coming train and asking how fast it is approaching. – David Graeber

The information age

info

The history of human civilisations to-date can be described as the information age, in which decisions within human societies are driven significantly by information encoded in written rules and in monetary metrics. The information age predates the invention of digital computers by several thousand years.

The physical manifestation of written language and abstract monetary tokens induces and reinforces an illusion of:

  • permanence (written words can survive many generations),
  • universal applicability (written words can be transported across large distances without distortion),
  • precision (written numbers allow quantification to quasi arbitrary levels of precision), and even an illusion of
  • shared understanding (via our associative memory familiar written words from unfamiliar people remind us of our personal experiences, and it is easy to forget that others may associate different experiences with the same words).

Written conventions and the fungibility of money equipped “civilised” societies not only with a tool for trade and complex transactions, but also with a tool for storing “value”. The act of quantification of value relies on a tacit consensus amongst the users of an abstract currency. A civilised society allows selfish and unscrupulous people to accumulate money by negotiating hard when selling to strangers and when buying from other strangers. The invention of interest bearing debt offered further “leverage”.

Money can be described as the abstract tool that has allowed humans to extend and scale the dominance hierarchies found in other primate societies to groups of many thousands and millions of people.

Via the reliance on money “civilised” societies actively encourage hoarding of information and resources. In “civilised” societies three types of human behaviour can be observed in the context of economic interactions:

  1. Altruism
  2. Reciprocal altruism
  3. Profit maximisation

Most people rely on one of these three strategies as their default mode of operation when dealing with friends and family, and with a potentially different default mode of operation when dealing with strangers. “Civilised” societies systematically disadvantage altruistic and compassionate people in favour of profit maximisers who are superficially charming and who can get away with creative interpretation of social rules.

Economics can be described as the discipline that attempts to legitimise the behaviour of profit maximisation alongside reciprocal altruism.

It should not really be surprising that to-date all “civilised” societies have eventually ended in collapse. Hoarding of information is not conducive to collective intelligence, and hoarding of resources leads to increasingly resource intensive cultural practices and to a growing ecological footprint.

In our times the close link between information hoarding and resource intensive cultural practices is exemplified by phrases such as:

  • Web 2.0 is about controlling data
  • The user [information producer] is the product
  • Monetisation of data
  • Data is the new oil

In the heat of civilised busyness it is easy to overlook that fact that money itself is simply abstract data, and that an objective such as “monetisation of data” encourages companies to develop absurd services that don’t serve any human need beyond the aggregation of capital on behalf of those who are obsessed with hoarding money.

Digital computers have accelerated the production of economic inequalities and have led to entire “industries” that attempt to monetise data, and which, in the pursuit of this objective, further increase resource and energy consumption. Bitcoin and similar cryptocurrencies epitomise this trend.

The global Bitcoin network is consuming more than seven gigawatts of electricity. Over the course of a year that’s equal to around 64 TWh or terawatt hours of energy consumption. That’s more than the country of Switzerland uses over the same time period (58 TWh per year).The Verge, 4 July 2019

Across the board, all “civilisations”, past and present, consist of organised groups of people that are so large that many interactions are “transactions” between people that don’t know much if anything about each other.

Life in “civilised” societies routinely puts people in situations of cognitive overload. People are forced to get used to the stress of transacting with anonymous strangers and are subject to social pressures to conform to norms and demands that have been decided in far away places, by rulers and bureaucrats who have no understanding of the local context in specific parts of their “empire”.

The knowledge age

knowledge-soc

In contrast to the myths about “human nature” that power civilisations, human babies are naturally inclined to help strangers, without any need for coercion or external “incentives”:

…helping [unrelated] others with simple physical problems is a naturally emerging human behaviour …at fourteen to eighteen months of age, before most parents have seriously started to expect their children, much less train them, to behave pro-socially. …parental rewards and encouragement do not seem to increase infants’ helping behaviour.

Parents take heed: the parental encouragement did not affect the infant’s behaviour at all; they helped the same amount with or without it.

… the infants were so inclined to help in general that to keep the overall level of helping down – so that we could potentially see differences between conditions – we had to provide a distracter activity in which they were engaged when the opportunity to help arose. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of cases, they pulled themselves away from this fun activity – they paid a cost – in order to help the struggling adult.

– Michael Tomasello, Why We Cooperate, Boston Review Books, 2009

Prior to the information age, for several hundred thousand years humans lived in much smaller groups without written language, money, and cities. The archaeological evidence available and also the evidence from “uncivilised” indigenous cultures that have survived until recently in a few remote places point towards an interesting commonality in the social norms of such societies:

The strongest social norms in pre-civilised societies were norms that prevented individuals from gaining power over others.

The key to the social co-operation in complex stateless societies is that they must effectively deal with the “free-rider” problems inherent in groups made up of ego-directed people. Overcoming these collective action problems is essential to understanding the evolution of social complexity in our species. These more successful stateless societies create social organisations that allow individual members of the group to benefit in ways that they cannot in smaller population sizes.

The lack of coercion in complex stateless societies is a key feature of this social phenomenon… unlike leaders in state societies, those in stateless ones do not possess coercive power over others. This is an extremely important observation: the emergence of of complex stateless societies was not a costly process in which the vast bulk of people were forced to give up resources or labor to ego-directed aggrandizers… ad-hoc managerial leadership will emerge to deal with the free-rider problems, on the one hand, and the need to reward co-operators, on the other. This is a kind of leadership created by the group; it is not forced on the group either by aggrandizers or by environmental stresses.

Informal social coercion exists in all stateless societies, and is manifested in taboo, black magic, and so forth. However, stateless societies are notable for their absence of institutionalised elites with power to obligate others without a substantial consensus among the community… power in stateless societies by leaders is ad hoc and granted or withdrawn by the community at large.

…people in small groups create rules and norms to govern the production and exchange of resources, behaviors that makes sustained economic co-production possible. These norms and rules are structured through various kinds of ritual and taboo. These rituals schedule tasks, reward co-operators, and enhance pay-off for prosocial behaviour by all members of the group. They maintain fairness and punish non-co-operators.

…small groups provide a context in which most people know each other. The ability to create social histories of most people and to use these reputations in future interactions is possible in small-group contexts in ways not possible in large groups.

people in successful groups recognise both the individual and the collective advantage of co-operation, and some individuals in the group are willing to absorb some costs onto themselves to maintain norms of fairness in exchange for prestige,

– Charles Stanish, The Evolution of Human Co-operation : Ritual and Social Complexity in Stateless Societies, Cambridge University Press, 2017

Unfortunately the language used by social scientists, including anthropologists, is biased by our culture, and makes use of terms such as ‘leaders’ and ‘prestige’, which carry some semantics in “civilised” societies that do not apply in pre-civilised societies.

The notion of ‘leadership’ as described in the extract above refers refers to an appreciation for valuable domain specific tacit knowledge and skills, and to the trust that is extended to individuals with empirically validated valuable knowledge and skills.

Similarly the notion of ‘prestige’ described in the extract above refers to individuals who consistently act in altruistic ways and contribute their knowledge in ways that benefit the group, who as a result enjoy the trust of many members of the group.

To date the vast majority of anthropological research ignores the role of neurodiversity in shaping human societies. Social scientists routinely assume neurotypical social motivations when observing and interpreting human behaviours. Taking into account that neurodivergent and especially autistic people may not at all be interested in ‘prestige’ in the sense of social status, but are rather motivated by a strong sense of curiosity and individual agency, allows for a more nuanced interpretation.

Regardless of cultural context, the curiosity and unusual sensory abilities of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent individuals result in deep domain specific knowledge and related specialised skills. Some of the acquired knowledge and skills may turn out to be valuable to society and attract the attention of others. In pre-civilised societies neurodivergent individuals will likely have been recognised as trustworthy carriers of valuable knowledge and competencies, the easily transferable parts of which will then have been preserved and propagated to others via cultural transmission.

In pre-civilised societies valuable knowledge was shared and carefully transmitted to future generations. In the absence of written language the knowledge transmission process involved all senses and intensive interaction between recognised masters and motivated novices.

Great climbers and highly skilled hunters, as well as those that excel in other locally valued domains, are sought out, deferred to, and naturally emerge as influential across a wide range of domains. Such respected individuals are rarely ill-tempered or erratic, and instead they are often renowned for their generosity. This phenomenon occurs even in societies that are highly egalitarian, possessing no formal leadership roles or hierarchy.

… once humans became good cultural learners, they needed to locate and learn from the best models. The best models are those that who seem to possess the information most likely to be valuable to learners, now or later in their lives. To be effective, learners must hang around their chosen models for long periods and at crucial times. Learners also benefit if their models are willing to share nonobvious aspects of their practices, or at least not actively conceal the secrets of their success.

… humans reliably develop emotions and motivations to seek out particularly skilled, successful, and knowledgeable models and then are willing to pay deference to those models in order to gain their cooperation, or at least acquiescence, in cultural transmission. This deference can come in many forms, including giving assistance, gifts and favours, as well as speaking well of them in public.

– Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success : How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Princeton University Press, 2015

The extract above underscores that autistic individuals will likely have played a key role in knowledge transmission, as they tend to be the ones who are incapable of keeping hidden agendas and consistently ‘willing to share nonobvious aspects of their practices’ with others.

Literally hundreds of experiments in dozens of countries using a variety of experimental protocols suggest that, in addition to their own material payoffs, people have social preferences: subjects care about fairness and reciprocity, are willing to change the distribution of material outcomes among others at a personal cost to themselves, and reward those who act in a pro-social manner while punishing those who do not, even when these actions are costly.

Initial skepticism about the experimental evidence has waned as subsequent experiments with high stakes and with ample opportunity for learning failed to substantially modify the initial conclusions.

This shift in the view of human motives has generated a wave of new research. First, and perhaps most important, a number of authors have shown that people deviate from the selfishness axiom and that this can lead to radical changes in the kinds of social behavior that result. For example, Fehr and Gächter (2002) have shown that social preferences leading to altruistic punishment can have very important effects on the levels of social cooperation (Ostrom et al. 1992).

– Joseph Henrich et al., Foundations of Human Sociality, Oxford University Press, 2004

Given what we know about neurodiversity and autistic people, the above results are unsurprising, and entirely consistent with the level of attention that autistic people tend to pay to social justice and fairness, irrespective of whether these attributes are valued by the surrounding culture or not. Given the neurotypical human tendency for over-imitation, any fairness norms invented by trustworthy autistic carriers of valuable knowledge will easily be absorbed into the cultural repertoire of the group.

… once culture gets off the ground it enables adaptation to new niches, situations, climates, and ecologies in a vastly more efficient way than can be achieved by ordinary natural selection… Societies with culture… quickly adapt to circumstances of any kind, … without waiting for the cumbersome process of natural selection to do its work.

– Robert A. Paul, Mixed Messages : Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Society, University of Chicago Press, 2015

The combination of neurodiversity and the human capacities for collaboration and cultural transmission that defined the knowledge age enabled humans to thrive for many hundred thousand years in a diverse range of circumstances – until humans invented the ingredients of “civilisation”, which, via the introduction of written language and money, shifted attention away from valuable knowledge to the accumulation of social power.

Whereas pre-civilised societies appreciated the talents of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people, the tools of “civilised” societies provide irresistible opportunities for ego-directed aggrandizers, which I am tempted to describe as “human primates” who are only interested in the acquisition of social power and related status symbols.

The knowledge age 2.0

knowledge2.0

“Civilisation” can be thought of as a social operating system that is afflicted by a collective learning disability induced by primate dominance hierarchies, which dampen feedback loops and flows of valuable knowledge. The result is a cultural inertia that perpetuates social power gradients and that discriminates against the discoverers of new knowledge that might undermine established social structures.

The exciting aspect about the human capacity for culture is that via a series of accidental discoveries and inventions, we have created a global network for sharing valuable knowledge, as well as opinions and misinformation. It apparently takes a virus like SARS-CoV-2 to put this network to good use, and to shift “civilised” cultural norms away from profit maximisation and back towards sharing knowledge for collective benefit.

I’ll hand over to one of my autistic peers for a synopsis:

It is fascinating to notice that SARS-CoV-2 has very rapidly induced cultural changes that affect the foundations of “civilisation”:

  1. Cities – explicitly designed to facilitate rapid sequences of human interactions in anonymous contexts, have been forced to adopt and enforce rules for physical distancing and limiting social interaction.
  2. Written language – when used as a tool for propaganda and distortion, now contributes to the spread of the virus, and yet can play a critical role when used for sharing valuable knowledge.
  3. Money – when used as a tool to protect social power gradients and profits, now has become a negative indicator that signals a lack of trustworthiness.

It is clear that the future of human societies now critically depends on cultural evolution of these foundations. Concepts such as cities and written language as well as quantitative metrics may survive, but their scope of applicability and the operational rules and rituals associated with them may be transformed to such an extent that we will invent new words to clearly distinguish between the old semantics of the information economy and the new semantics of the emerging knowledge age.

In a world increasingly not only connected by trade in goods, but also by exchange of violence, information, viruses, emissions, the importance of social preferences in underwriting human cooperation, even survival, may now be greater even than it was amongst that small group of foragers that began the exodus from Africa 55,000 years ago to spread this particular cooperative species to the far corners of the world.

– Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, A Cooperative Species : Human Reciprocity and its Evolution, Princeton University Press, 2013

Planetary intelligence is achieved by creating a feedback loop of mutual learning between the rapid learning cycles (mutations) of viruses and learning cycles at human scale, which are now amplified via a global digital network at super-human scale. Humans are learning the hard way that messing with that network for misinformation and attempts of hierarchical control works against humans and the entire planetary ecosystem.

Once ego-directed aggrandizers with “leadership aspirations” are again recognised as the biggest threat to society, our capacity for culture may again make us more intelligent than the other primates. We can reorient towards a kinder human scale world that nurtures a global knowledge commons and that celebrates mutual aid.

Rediscovering human scale

busy

In our world there is a silver lining to anything that reduces global – energy and resource hungry – busyness, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

The good news (via Carbonbrief.org):

As China battles one of the most serious virus epidemics of the century, the impacts on the country’s energy demand and emissions are only beginning to be felt. Electricity demand and industrial output remain far below their usual levels across a range of indicators, many of which are at their lowest two-week average in several years. These include:

  • Coal consumption at power plants was down 36%
  • Operating rates for main steel products were down by more than 15%, while crude steel production was almost unchanged
  • Coal throughput at the largest coal port fell 29%
  • Coking plant utilization fell 23%
  • Satellite-based NO2 levels were 37% lower
  • Utilization of oil refining capacity was lowered by 34%
  • At their peak, flight cancellations were reducing global passenger aviation volumes by 10%, but the sector appears to be recovering, with global capacity down 5% on year in February as a whole.

All told, the measures to contain coronavirus have resulted in reductions of 15% to 40% in output across key industrial sectors. This is likely to have wiped out a quarter or more of the country’s CO2 emissions over the past four weeks, the period when activity would normally have resumed after the Chinese new-year holiday. (See methodology below.) Over the same period in 2019, China released around 800m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2), meaning the virus could have cut global emissions by 200MtCO2 to date.

The potentially bad news (also via Carbonbrief.org):

The key question is whether the impacts are sustained, or if they will be offset – or even reversed – by the government response to the crisis.

Initial analysis from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) suggests the repercussions of the outbreak could shave up to half a percent off global oil demand in January-September this year.

However, the Chinese government’s coming stimulus measures in response to the disruption could outweigh these shorter-term impacts on energy and emissions, as it did after the global financial crisis and the 2015 domestic economic downturn.

Governments now have a unique chance to switch to a new understanding of economics, i.e regenerative management of resources and waste, that is compatible with human life on this planet – or otherwise to ignore the opportunity and lapse back into suicidal busyness as usual.

Our society could benefit a lot from a permanent cultural shift towards reduced commutes into city centres, from reduced global travel, and from increased levels of remote knowledge work. A pandemic might turn out to be an effective catalyst on multiple levels:

“Don’t try and predict, just think about preparation from your business side, I know we’re doing this at the Reserve Bank. Folks, liquidity is probably going to help, so talk to your bankers and make sure they don’t start sucking that away from you. And bankers, be long-term and be hard thinking about this sort of stuff. These events are always going to happen, it’s just this year’s activity and, who knows, it’s probably not the only one this year. So all businesses should always have that preparation. The Reserve Bank is also doing a lot of mahi in the background around what low or negative interest rates would mean for the New Zealand economy. Can banks do a negative number if it was a small negative interest rate? Now, all of this is preparation, it’s not a prediction.”

New Zealand Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr

Ideas that are genuinely beneficial for society and the planet are best propagated by the slow and valuable process of knowledge sharing at eye level in Open Space, allowing for critical enquiry, independent validation, refinement where needed, and transmission of essential locally relevant context.

We can’t engineer a society through memetics the way a biologist might hope to engineer an organism through genetics. To do so would bypass our higher faculties, our reasoning, and our collective autonomy. It is unethical, and, in the long run, ineffective. It’s also deliberately antihuman.

Sure, well-meaning and prosocial counterculture groups have attempted to spread their messages through the equivalents of viral media. They subvert the original meanings of corporate logos, leveraging the tremendous spending power of an institution against itself with a single clever twist. With the advent of a new, highly interactive media landscape, internet viruses seemed like a great way to get people talking about unresolved issues. If the meme provokes a response, this logic argues, then it’s something that has to be brought to the surface.

– From The ends never justify the memes by Douglas Rushkoff

Using tools of persuasion beyond peer-to-peer learning may well become a taboo in the not-too-distant future. Capitalists are starting to trip over their own competitive games, desperate for new ways of remaining relevant in a post-capitalist world. The level of fear is illustrated by this headline: Data is not the new oil – it’s the new plutonium.

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. We live in a society driven by fear. Always ask who benefits from the fear. Fear can induce panic but it can also catalyse courage.

The cycle of fear can only be broken by the creation and replication of islands of psychological safety. Encouragingly the number of such islands is growing.

Collaboration at human scale

 

openspace

Even though I mention the concept of human scale in many of my articles, I have my doubts about how many readers take the time to think through the full implications of living in super-human scale societies.

My hope is that the COVID-19 pandemic triggers a shift in awareness and sensitivity to the extreme risks generated by our attempts to operate super-human scale institutions and systems using organisational designs that provide a small minority of individuals with enormous social powers – often orders of magnitudes beyond individual human cognitive limits, severely constraining the individual agency of the vast majority of people – thereby reducing our collective intelligence correspondingly by orders of magnitude.

“Study after study confirms that most people have about five intimate friends, 15 close friends, 50 general friends and 150 acquaintances. This threshold is imposed by brain size and chemistry, as well as the time it takes to maintain meaningful relationships”, Robin Dunbar says. 
– Scientific American, September 2018

These numbers guide my thinking on human scale and have shaped the NeurodiVenture operating model that limits the size of good company to 50 people, which in the case of S23M is enforced by our company constitution. The NeurodiVenture model is closely aligned with observations made by E. F. Schumacher in his 1966 essay on Buddhist economics and his book Small is Beautiful.

Larger organisations that contain structures of command and control are not only learning disabled, they are also also detrimental to mental health and trusted collaboration.

Here are some of the advantages that emerge at human scale:

  1. The NeurodiVenture operating model not only raises neurodiversity as a top level concern for good company, but by imposing a hard limit on group size, it also ensures that every member of the team has spare cognitive capacity for building and maintaining trusted relationships with the outside world. It is a good idea for every member to maintain some of their 50 general friend relationships with people in other companies.
  2. Let’s assume on average every member has 10 general friend relationships with people in other companies. Then collectively a good company can maintain a very impressive number of strong trusted relationships with other good companies. For example a company of 40 people would have a mind-boggling capacity of up to 40 * 10 = 400 general friend relationships with other companies. The important observation here is that we are talking about genuine and trust based relationships between people and not about superficial and untrusted transactional interactions. Collaborating in good company, even across the organisational boundary, is genuinely enjoyable!
  3. In order for individuals to collaborate effectively and in order to effectively coordinate activities across the organisation it makes sense for emergent groups of regular (daily) collaborators to be given recognisable labels – the result is a structure of teams. A theoretical debate over whether teams should be allowed to overlap completely misses the point. What matters is that high performing collaborative teams tend to have 7 +/- 2 members.
  4. Within a good company (smaller than 50 people) and especially within a team, everyone is acutely aware of the competencies of all the other members. In a NeurodiVenture  all members expose (write down and share) these so-called individual competency networks for the benefit of everyone within the company. Transparency of all individual competency networks for the benefit of everyone within the company is perhaps the most radical idea within the NeurodiVenture model. Transparency of individual competency networks enables meta knowledge (who has which knowledge and who entrusts whom with questions or needs in relation to specific domains of knowledge) to flow freely within an organisation.

I could compile a much longer list of advantages of the NeurodiVenture operating model supported by 8 years (and counting) of operating experience, but many of these advantages are simply corollaries of the cognitive limits highlighted by Dunbar’s research.

Learning how to create collaborative environments for small human scale groups (good companies) creates a collaborative edge over other companies as no effort is wasted on in-group competition. This in turn significantly reduces the need to spend time on “winning” direct competitions with other companies. What happens instead is that other companies are increasingly intrigued by the company’s capability.

Collaboration at super-human scale

 

singapore

In a super-human scale social world that is increasingly toxic for individual mental and physical health, a diversity of human scale paradigms will eventually crowd out the super-human “global” / “national” / “mega-city” scale paradigm that dominates today.

Agency at super-human scale is an emergent phenomenon that can not be attributed to any specific individual. Living within “civilisation” we are surrounded by super-human scale structures and it is difficult for most people to imagine collaboration at human scale without being embedded in some bigger hierarchical system.

If we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of human “civilisations”, the rules for coordinating at super-human scale will have to allow for and encourage a rich diversity of human scale organisations. In a human scale social world, apart from the self-imposed constraint of human scale, there is no universally dominant organisational paradigm.

The resulting web of interdependencies can simply be thought of as the web of life rather than “civilisation 2.0”. We must not to again make the anthropocentric mistake of putting humans at the centre of the universe.

Organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus is the genus that includes all cultural species. The NeurodiVenture operating model is the social DNA of an emergent cultural species that has developed an immune system that enables it to survive and even thrive in three complementary contexts:

  1. within super-human scale societies afflicted by terminal cancer
  2. within social environments that contain a growing number of NeurodiVentures
  3. within social environments that contain other human scale cultural species within the human genus

Each human scale cultural organism represents an aggregation of agency that manifests itself in individual relationships and interactions across the organisational boundary. In a non-hierarchical cultural organism there is no single individual that “leads”, instead external representation and decision making of the cultural organism is distributed across all the individual relationships between the cultural organism and other cultural organisms.

Shocks to human social systems like the COVID-19 pandemic are catalysing a transformation from extremely brittle super-human scale structures towards human scale structures that are understandable from within human cognitive limits. We will have to get used to the fact that super-human scale structures are the products of bio/cultural ecosystem evolution rather than the imagined products of individual human ingenuity or human “leadership”. Remember, on this planet no-one is in control.

The following two articles offer further observations on the co-ordination of activities at super-human scale:

  • Evolution of social ecosystems – This article illustrates that we are already much closer to a world without capital than capitalists would like us to believe. It introduces a visual non-linear language system for reasoning about collaboration beyond human scale. The article also examines the differences between human scale cultural species and super-human scale “civilised” societies in terms of collective intelligence, and the differences between modern emergent human scale cultural species (like NeurodiVentures) and prehistoric human scale cultural species in terms of language systems and communication technologies.
  • Autistic collaboration for life – This article dives deep into interactions between NeurodiVentures and other human scale organisations. Many details are described with the help of compact formal visual concept graphs. I intend to unpack the implications in less compact narrative form in future articles.

Catalysing cultural transformation

 

solidarity

Human capabilities and limitations are under the spot light. How long will it take for human minds to shift gears, away from the power politics and hierarchically organised societies that still reflect the cultural norms of our primate cousins, and from myopic human-centric economics, towards planetary economics that recognise the interconnectedness of life across space and time?

The future of democratic governance could be one where people vote for human understandable open source legislation that is directly executable by open source software systems. Corporate and government politicians will no longer be deemed as an essential part of human society. Instead, any concentration of power in human hands is likely to be recognised as an unacceptable risk to the welfare of society and the health of the planet.

Language frames people’s thoughts and emotional response. The best we can do is to consciously use language that broadens our perspective to include all living agents within the biosphere.

We can reorient towards a kinder world that celebrates interdependence by systematically replacing words that have accumulated toxic cultural baggage:

  1. Niche construction and symbiosis rather than competition 
– to create organisations and services that are fit for purpose and valued by the wider community
  2. Company rather than business – to focus on the people and things we care about rather than what is simply keeping us busy
  3. Values rather than value – to avoid continuously discounting what is priceless
  4. Physical waste rather than wealth – to focus us on the metrics that do matter
  5. Human scale and individual agency rather than large scale and growth – to create structures and systems that are understandable and relatable
  6. Competency networks and catalysts rather than leadership and leaders – to get things done and distribute decision making to where the knowledge resides
  7. Coordination rather than management – to address all the stuff that can increasingly be automated, management is often the biggest obstacle to automation
  8. Creativity and divergent thinking rather than best practices – when facing the need to innovate and improve

From burning fossil fuels to burning capital

cars3.png

For humans it is not possible to reason about the Anthropocene entirely without human bias. The best we can do is to consciously use language that broadens our perspective to include all living agents within the biosphere.

Burning fossil fuels

The catastrophic bush fires in Australia offer a good illustration of how people collaborate when confronted with the kinds of disasters that global heating will increasingly inflict on our societies. On the one hand, from Love and respect shine though in a time of crisis (5 January 2020) :

The fires leave terrible destruction in their wake, but they also leave deeper human bonds…

You might imagine that, at a time like this, people would become selfish, trying to protect their own place; worried about how their own sheds and homes and stock will emerge.

I’ve seen little evidence of that. Instead, every moment seems to be spent worried about someone else.

And on the other hand, from Scott Morrison’s fires response has put his political judgement in question (5 January 2020) :

When it comes to political clumsiness, the Prime Minister’s Hawaiian holiday was hard to top. But the Liberal Party advertisement released late yesterday, as dozens of communities faced horror bushfire conditions, came close.

The ad shows Scott Morrison in the field, taking charge (angry locals refusing to shake his hand are nowhere to be seen). Firefighters battle the flames with abundant support from Defence Force personnel and aerial assets. The Federal Government’s contributions are proudly listed in on-screen text. Uplifting background music instils confidence that this is a man with a plan.

There will no doubt be debate as to whether this is indeed a party political advertisement capitalising on the disaster, or simply an effort to disseminate information.

But when it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck …

The contrast between the mutual support that emerges within local communities and the behaviour of the most powerful person in the country is not surprising, but representative of a phenomenon that has been described as “elite panic”. From Disarm the lifeboats (4 January 2020) :

Disaster experts can predict how most people will react: Most will try to work together to save the most people possible. As Erik Auf Der Heide, a leading disaster expert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has written, “antisocial behaviors are uncommon in typical disaster situations.” I’ve observed this myself, in natural disasters in places as different as Haiti and Staten Island, for almost all people.

But there is a notable exception. The richest people on the ship are the least likely to cooperate. There is a formal term for this, based on a 2008 paper by the sociologists Caron Chess and Lee Clarke. It’s called “elite panic.” As Rebecca Solnit has written, “Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature.” And as such, they believe that only “their power keeps the rest of us in line.” If the ship—or human society—is disrupted, they think, “our seething violence will rise to the surface.”

Addiction to power and wealth underpins all civilisations. Faith in co-called “leadership” is the Archilles’ heel of human societies.

People 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. Translated from this article:

A society based on cunning, on people who deceive others

The “business” is hidden for the majority of people, but it is business of companies that have grown at an unprecedented speed. So you end up with a problem: you have a society based on cunning, on people who deceive others. With such a model of society, we should not be surprised at having become unable to solve the real problems. We are now disconnected from reality.

We do not deal properly with the issue of climate change. We do not deal properly with the issues of peace, war, immigration, food resources, water resources, public health, and all these important issues. We became incompetent because society as a whole began to focus on how to deceive and trick people.

– Jaron Lanier, VR technology pioneer, 2019

In the emerging social environment of disillusioned communities and citizens, you can neither buy trust nor investments that deliver a “return on capital”. Those who attempt it actually undermine their credibility and tie themselves to a sinking ship.

Oil was the engine of growth in the twentieth century, then for a little while, data was considered to be the new oil, and now, as the “externalities” of 100 years of oil based economics manifest in personal experiences, we can conclude that oil is the new data.

Burning capital

We are already much closer to a world without capital than capitalists would like us to believe. In many ways such a new world is much more desirable for most of us than the delusional world of infinite “growth” that we are still being sold.

In fact, investment capital has become a negative signal:

  1. The more capital someone has, the less trustworthy they are.
  2. A venture that depends on external investors is less trustworthy than a venture that does not depend on external investors.
  3. Patents and other forms of proprietary intellectual property are increasingly recognised as tools for growing capital, which reduces the trustworthiness of all ventures that rely on proprietary intellectual property for generating profits for investors (see Telsa‘s attempt to remain credible).
  4. People increasingly recognise philanthropy as attempts by capitalists to distract from the externalities caused by their investment activities and to artificially enhance their reputations, and indirectly to enhance the value of their investments.

The way forward will increasingly involve:

  1. Negative interest rates, to provide capitalists with (a) a less-toxic tool for disposing of capital, (b) time to re-learn how to develop trust based relationships, and (c) integrate into new emerging social structures that operate on zero capital. Negative interest rates are already a reality today, and they will become more and more common.
  2. Employee owned companies powered by zero external capital.
  3. Open source intellectual property, to incrementally reduce the value of proprietary intellectual property to zero.
  4. Freely sharing tacit knowledge and human understandable forms of explicit knowledge between trusted collaborators.

The resulting web of interdependencies can simply be thought of as the web of life rather than “civilisation 2.0”. We must not again make the anthropocentric mistake of putting humans at the centre of the universe.

Related initiatives

degrowth

The Aut Collab community welcomes all individuals and groups who fully appreciate the value of neurodiversity. Aut Collab acts as a hub for mutual support and encourages neurodivergent individuals to connect and establish inclusive non-hierarchical organisations. Over the last two decades it has become clear that autistic cognitive lenses are an essential element in all human societies, especially in the context of innovation and in terms of reducing spurious complexity in human culture. It is time to liberate autism from the pathology paradigm. Autistic people are often noted for their their honesty, their naivety, and their inability to be exploitative. The lack of self-promotional ability is typically at odds with cultural expectations.

The P2P Foundation is a non-profit organization and global network dedicated to advocacy and research of commons-oriented peer to peer (P2P) dynamics in society. P2P is an abbreviation of “peer to peer”, sometimes also described as “person to person” or “people to people”. P2P is a process or dynamic that can be found in many communities and movements self-organising around the co-creation of culture and knowledge. Well known general examples include the free/open source software movement; free culture; open hardware; and open access in education and science.

The Post Growth Institute is an international organisation accelerating the world’s shift to a society that thrives within ecological limits. ‘Post-growth’ is a worldview that sees society operating better without the demand of constant economic growth. It proposes that widespread economic justice, social well-being and ecological regeneration are only possible when money inherently circulates through our economy. In all its forms, the dominant economic system – capitalism – is committed to economic growth. Ongoing economic growth threatens our survival as a species. Transitioning to a post-growth economy represents our best option in response to the threat of social and ecological collapse.

The Degrowth web portal is a learning resource on degrowth as a social movement and as a theory. By ‘degrowth’, we understand a form of society and economy which aims at the well-being of all and sustains the natural basis of life. To achieve degrowth, we need a fundamental transformation of our lives and an extensive cultural change. The current economic and social paradigm is ‘faster, higher, further’. It is built on and stimulates competition between all humans. This causes acceleration, stress and exclusion. You can find answers to the question “What is degrowth?”, search for audio, video and text materials in our library, learn about the current projects and the past and next international Conferences on Degrowth, or get involved in many different ways.