04 February 2007

Time to Upgrade Civilization's Operating System

Microsoft has just introduced Vista – its new operating system. Change an operating system and you change the context – change an application and you only change the problem before you. An application can be wonderful but if it is not compatible with the operating system, it is ineffective.

Right now civilization faces the problem of climate change and all the attempts to begin addressing this problem seem to be as ineffectual as trying to load an application into the wrong operating system. Indeed, our current philosophical context – civilization’s operating system if you will – is incompatible with this problem.

We simply won’t be able to address the problem of climate change (or any of a number of other problems) without first changing our operating system. Civilization’s current operating system is pragmatism. Until we realize that pragmatism is no longer pragmatic, we’re likely to find ourselves stymied by this problem of climate change.

Pragmatism has become the dominant philosophy during the last century. The pragmatist is less interested in universal truths than in solving a specific problem in a specific context. For the Enlightenment philosopher, the holy grail of thought might best be represented in the laws of physics as articulated by Newton – the laws of gravity or “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” For the pragmatist, the holy grail of thought might be articulating the legal argument that wins her case before the Supreme Court or writing computer code that becomes a best selling application. The pragmatist lives in a shifting world and doesn’t really expect to trip upon any universal or eternal truths. The pragmatist, in the words of William James, is literally interested in the “cash value” of idea. Pragmatism has become the dominant philosophy in circles where it matters – scientists, knowledge workers, and policy-makers (whether in government or business) are all pragmatists.

There is, of course, at least one problem with this: in a world full of pragmatists all focused on specific solutions to specific problems in a specific context, the system as a whole is neglected. Some intelligent experts are hard at work trying to understand how to sell cars, some on how to sell political candidates, others on how to understand climate warming, but none are at work trying understand how the interaction of all these (and other) pieces come to together to inexorably move us towards a calamitous collision of culture and climate. Working towards such a solution is terribly un-pragmatic, suggesting a course of action that is both improbable and implausible. Intelligent experts are unlikely to pursue the solution to such a problem set.

What is needed are groups of people who think through what it means to transform the foundational philosophy of our modern world. What would our corporations, government agencies, and schools look like if civilization’s operating system were systems thinking rather than pragmatism?

This is not merely a rhetorical question. Just such a transformation is exactly what happened about two to three hundred years ago when our notion of government was transformed.
Our founding fathers were deeply influenced by Enlightenment philosophy. The historian Walther Kirchner went so far as to write:
“The first great assault upon the traditional social system occurred in England’s thirteen colonies. They were comparatively free and prosperous and subject to rather generous, progressive government. The assault was not led by the oppressed, but by those who had little to gain except the fulfillment of certain ideals rooted in the spirit of the Enlightenment.”

How do we address problems that spill across boundaries and seem to thumb their nose at our current institutions? I’d argue that the solution to how we transform society begins as it always has – with a transformation in our philosophical operating system. The Renaissance, The Enlightenment, and Pragmatism all represented upgrades to civilization’s operating system – a transformation to the philosophy and paradigm of society. It’s time to upgrade again. Before the system crashes.

10 comments:

Dave said...

How come I often feel like a slacker when I read you more serious stuff? I'm one of your pragmatists, though a frustrated member of the class. I doubt I can switch classes because when I do "unfocus" from the task at hand, I dwell on what is wrong, not what can make what is wrong better.

Ron Davison said...

Dave - I could have made the point more pointedly: our talented people are forced to be pragmatists if they want to pay the rent. The systems thinkers as yet have no real institutions through which to work. From my perspective, this is a societal failure (a term I've been dying to use since I began this blog).

Vladimir Dzhuvinov said...

Isn't pragmatism a synonym for realism?

I think the problem here is not the will to be pragmatic, but the want of our reasoning, the difficulty seeing the big picture.

How do we recognise limited thinking? Too much reliance on compartmentalisation, on "divide-and-conquer" strategies. And that leads to limited, incremental reliefs in situations where fundamental solutions are needed.

What do we need to decompartmentalise our thinking?

A new operating system?

Or maybe more RAM?

Somewhere I've read that humans can hold only up to 7 variables in their operating memory. Now that's not a lot of memory if you want to work on complex problems :)

Norman Patnode said...

Ron,

I agree systems thinking is required to address the problems of our global society.

So . . . how do we change the operating system of our global society?

What can we do today?
Over the next few months?
Over the next year or two?
The next five years? Ten? Twenty?

What would it take to create a virtual (requisite) organization to channel the passion and capacity of individuals into solving the problems of our global social "system"?

Norman Patnode said...

Vladimir,

Every engineer is taught that a set of non-linear differential equations cannot be solved, so you must therefore "linearize" the problem by making some simplifying assumptions. Usually, this results in compartmentalization, as people strive to solve specific problems.

This approach pervades everything! . . . and I think that's what Ron means by "operating system."

As for people being able to deal with enough complexity to solve big hairy system problems, I think the capacity is out there (For an interesting perspective on this, see "Hunam Capability" by Elliott Jaques.), but it is being constrained by the way it is typically organized and employed.

I believe the new operating system will require new "hardware" to be successful. As I see it, the definition of what is a corporation must also evolve as we shift to a predominant paradigm of systems thinking.

Vladimir Dzhuvinov said...

So . . . how do we change the operating system of our global society?
By changing myself first :D

What can we do today?
I tried to persuade a friend to start up his own business - in the hope that would lead to one more happy and fulfilled soul :) And our government having more money to spend on important things like education and quality asphalt to burn rubber on!!!

Over the next few months?
Finish my book :)

The next five years? Ten?
Get married before I turn thirty, then raise a bunch of good, wise and responsible citizens of our world! Fortunately, I've still got a few years until then - sigh of relief 8)

What would it take to create a virtual (requisite) organization to channel the passion and capacity of individuals into solving the problems of our global social "system"?
Perhaps not much. I guess it would be enough to stop insisting on having organisations that get in our way... bureaucratic organisations that suck in our passion to create frustrations :)

Vladimir Dzhuvinov said...

BTW Norman, thank you for the book tip. I had a look at the Amazon reviews and it seems intriguing.

Dave said...

I'm leaving this subject to you Vladimir and Norman.

Ron Davison said...

It's too late, Dave. By commenting you are committed. Those are the rules of the blogosphere, and rules are rules, sorry.

Norman said...

Vladimir,

On the book tip: You're welcome :)

And at the risk of having you overdose on Jaques . . .

Check out his book, "Social Power & the CEO" for some intriguing thoughts on how to "stop insisting on having organisations that get in our way" and "that suck in our passion to create frustrations."

Cheers