The beauty of collaboration at human scale

Timeless patterns of human limitations

As the title suggests, this book is about collaboration, about scale, and about humans, about beauty, and about limits. It has been written from my perspective as an autistic anthropologist by birth and a knowledge archaeologist by autodidactic training. I attempt to address the challenges of ethics and collective intelligence in an era that 21st century geologists refer to as the Anthropocene.

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. Humanity is experiencing a phase transition that is catalysed by a combination of new communication technologies, toxic levels of social inequalities, and existential crises. It is time to put ubiquitous global digital connectivity to good use, to curate and share the lessons from marginalised perspectives, and to reflect critically on the human evolutionary journey and on the possibilities and limitations of human agency.

The journey of exponentially accelerating cultural evolution presented in this book covers several hundred thousand years, from the origins of humans right up to the latest significant developments in the early 21st century. I would like to equip communities and individuals with conceptual tools to create good companies that are capable of pumping value from a dying ideological system into an emerging world. 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 and collaborate accordingly.

Becoming conscious of human cognitive limits and recognising that these limits are just as real, immutable, and relevant for our survival as the laws of physics may allow us to avoid the fate of earlier civilisations, and to embark on a path of radical energy descent.

The observations offered in this book are the synthesis of my field research from living amongst humans, which has been shaped by hundreds of deep and enjoyable conversations with friends and family within the autistic community, and with my peers at S23M, the human scale NeurodiVenture that started my journey of discovery and creative collaboration back in 2002. Many thanks to all the many who have contributed to growing my understanding of the human species.

➜ Download the book (password protected).

If you would like to review the book and provide constructive feedback, you can request access to the complete content using the form below.

The book The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale is now in the peer review stage. Much of the content in the book has been published in earlier articles, but the book offers a unique chronological perspective on human cultural evolution, and it adds the glue needed to establish important semantic connections across discipline boundaries.

In many ways the book is an Autistic Collaboration project. The book offers tools for finding viable paths into a more neurodiversity friendly future. The book concludes with a wonderful quote from an article written by Pip Carroll, in the lead up to the prolonged but ultimately very successful lock-down in Melbourne:

A caring society does not value the individual for their ability to return economic value, but simply for existing as their own imperfect self. We can’t choose to be cared for any more than we can choose to win the lottery. We can only hope to develop the quality in others by offering care ourselves. Trusting that care, once given is ordained to return to another in need.

Reader feedback

First, the overall sense that came across to me, what struck me as the book’s central message, the Big Idea that I expect will stick with me over time: 

It is a deep de-pathologizing of autism—i.e., it goes far beyond the message that I’ve encountered so far, which is a much weaker “autism is an acceptable (even if odd, quirky) human variation.” In contrast, your book goes all the way to “autism is a crucially, vitally, urgently needed human variation—a powerful corrective and counterbalance to the hierarchical, dominance-based mentality currently driving human society and the planet off the rails.” 

I don’t know if that is your intended main message (I hope I’m not too far off), but it is certainly a message that comes across loud and clear to me from your writing; and it is a message I find extremely compelling, helpful, and new. If that is indeed what you are primarily aiming to convey, I’m totally behind it. The world needs a book—probably a boatload of books—that conveys this message.

You then back up this message with a huge number of examples contrasting neurotypical and autistic (and aboriginal) approaches, values, tendencies, and so on; and with a huge number of practical examples of how the autistic approach can be translated into real-world organizations, relationships, protocols, methodologies, frameworks, and so on. All of this makes it very clear that autists have genuine, and important, urgently-needed skills and abilities, especially related to collaborating in ways that are beneficial for society and the planet —because they are in alignment with broad evolutionary principles.

A major corollary of the main idea (again, as I understood it) is your description of neurotypical and neuronormative traits. The most striking idea that came across to me in this regard is: the neurotypical mode of being is a communicational learning disability. That is quite a shocking way to put it, but you make an excellent case for it. It’s a radical idea but it rings true.

Beyond the “learning disability” idea, the more general sense I got about the contrast between the two neurotypes is that autism corresponds to a “non-civilized,” collaborative, egalitarian, diversity-honoring, exploratory, honest, non-self-promoting mode; and neuronormativity corresponds to the modern type who is individualistic, hierarchical, competitive, dominating, exploitative, bullying, conformist, deceptive, and ruthlessly (even pathologically) obsessed with social ranking. 

You also clearly emphasize that a hugely important part of the bullying, conformist deception of neurotypicals is the pathologizing of autists—and you do a great job dismantling that deception.

Actually, you don’t even stop at showing how autistic collaborative styles could counteract much of what ails the world today. You go even farther and make a convincing case that, by removing social power structures/barriers (which undermine the free flow of ideas), a wonderful kind of evolutionary-collaborative play could unfold and produce all kinds of new possibilities and “living systems.” This, too, is totally new to me—and just plain wonderful and inspiring. It’s a beautiful vision of human potential!

Another recurring theme is “psychological safety,” which seems particularly important to making your vision and specific proposals work. Since this is not a widely understood concept, I was hoping to see it developed further. (You do eventually define it, but only very late in the book, as I recall.)

On the practical, applied level, you present (and create new language/conceptual frameworks for) an organic, life-mimicking approach to business ventures—modeled on biological-evolutionary structures/processes/systems—i.e., business as a part of nature rather than opposed to it. Again, this is wonderful—although I will admit that I did not understand all of the terminology or the graphics you present in support of this vision. But I suspect that this would mean much more to people who are daily immersed in the types of organizations you work with.

You are also helping me to see the role of scale more clearly than I have before. I think you’re right, in a fully literal sense, when you say that our cognitive limits (relative to scale) are as “real, immutable, and relevant for our survival as the laws of physics.” When you put it that way—in terms of immutable laws—you are giving a warning: “There’s no getting around this or ‘outsmarting’ this!” Modernity is full of the lie that reality is endlessly mutable—that we can just pick and choose whatever we like; that we can always get away with bending reality to our will; and that this is actually a noble and “progressive” pursuit.

In an overarching organizational sense, the two main components to the book seemed to be: first, a comparison of neurotypical and neurodiverse styles or modes of being (the relative benefits and liabilities associated with them); and second, a presentation of an organic-evolutionary approach to collaborative ventures that draws from the autistic mode. You present these two main components in a closely-linked and mutually reinforcing manner. This adds up to a powerful argument.

To summarize my overall sense of the book’s message, it is a real tour de force of collaborative, diversity-, community-, and planet-inclusive thinking and practice/application—as opposed to the usual, competitive, self-serving, elitist model. It makes the strongest possible case that autistic/neurodiverse thinking and collaborating styles have a critically important role to play as an antidote to the currently dominant neurotypical social-ranking/dominance approach—a critically important role to play in bringing modern society back into some kind of sustainable balance, functionality, social justice, and sanity (which had always been the human norm for countless generations).

Thank you again, Jorn. You don’t even know me but you’ve done more for me than I can say.

I wish you the best with your NeurodiVentures and all your other ventures and adventures. I hope your book reaches a wide audience. If it does, I’m sure it will have a very beneficial effect.

Greg Sellei

Table of Content

Part I – Homo symbolicus

  1. Human origins
  2. Human scale patterns
  3. The human lens
  4. Learning
  5. Super-human scale patterns
  6. Loose end : Loss of complexity

Part II – Homo economicus

  1. Automated labour
  2. Industrial society
  3. Loose end : Exponential growth
  4. Computing
  5. Digital information society
  6. Loose end : Loss of tacit knowledge
  7. Busyness
  8. Liquidation society
  9. Loose end : Loss of semantics

Part III – Homo ecologus

  1. Thought experiment : Knowledge society
  2. Addressing the loose ends
  3. Human scale patterns, second edition
  4. Transitioning to human scale
  5. Conclusion

The author

Jorn Bettin is an autistic anthropologist by birth and a knowledge archaeologist by autodidactic training. He has a background in mathematics, and has put his understanding of formal symbolic reasoning to good use in the co-design of ecosystems of visual domain specific languages, working closely with domain experts from a broad range of industries that include healthcare delivery, logistics, insurance, accounting, telecommunications, horticulture, manufacturing, electricity grid operations, power plant engineering, as well as domain experts from vendors of software products for these industries.

Jorn has over thirty years of experience in the W.E.I.R.D. world of busyness, and has been involved in operating S23M since 2002, with the goal of creating a good company at human scale that will still be appreciated by society and all the people involved 200 years from now. In 2012 the S23M team developed the NeurodiVenture operating model to underscore the joint commitment to a safe and nurturing environment for divergent thinking, creativity, exploration, and collaborative niche construction.

Jorn’s current work focuses on the co-design of new community-oriented and patient centric models of care and the adoption of supporting software tools. He has co-authored several books on model oriented knowledge engineering and is part of the Autistic Collaboration Trust – a global mutual support hub for neurodivergent individuals and ventures.