09 October 2007

Inventing Civilization - Again

Imagine you lived in a community with houses lit only by sky lights made of magnifying glass. The problem is, this design leads to fires as the light focused on objects causes them to spontaneously combust. If you lived in such a place, you’d likely be so busy fighting fires that you’d have little time or inclination to understand the design flaw, much less fix it.

Our society has reached a similar point. Our mental models – our view of the world – are such that many of our problems are actually structured into our society. We live in a fractured world that has been fractured by a fractured world view. Our society is based on the belief that if only each individual were to do what is best for self, society will automatically improve. Perhaps the most famous quote of Adam Smith’s is “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

In our fractured world view, we believe that if only schools focused more on excelling in education, society would improve. If only businesses focused more on profits, society would thrive. If only politicians focused more on legislation, society would be better. And so on.

But in fact, we’re all humans being human, as much as our institutions want us to pretend to be students or employees or citizens. As the systems thinker Russell Ackoff points out, to focus on play or work or learning in isolation is never as effective as allowing play, work, and learning to blend and interact. To improve a school’s education separate from some idea of how one would improve society as a whole is a meaningless exercise that ultimately leads to nonsense like a concentration on standardized tests. To focus on profits without focusing on improving lives leads to the oddly perverse process of claiming success even while destroying one’s habitat.
The basis for today's dominant world view traces back to Descarte's rules for thinking - a notion that the world is best understood by breaking it into pieces. If the individual pursues his own self-interest, or the organization pursues its own interest, the world will be made better. That mental model helped our ancestors to invent the modern world. That mental model has also been rendered obsolete by its own success.

What has happened in a world of 6 billion people, 200 nations, and 2 million corporations is that we've run out of room to engage in such a philosophy, to use such a mental model. It is as if we've prospered with moves that work only with considerable independence and elbow room, conditions that have faded.

One simple fact of economic development is this: the more advanced the economy the more interdependent. You can live independent of others, but your lifestyle will be like that of Tom Hanks' character in Cast Away - simple, crude, and fragile. As we enjoy more affluence, we increasingly depend on the ideas and technology, the work and products of others. Rarely is a product so simple that it can be made by a single person; more often what we consume is the product of corporations, of teams of people.

And yet our underlying philosophy is still geared towards an atomistic viewpoint, a construct that assumes the ability to work, live, and act in isolation. It is as though our all our models assume a vacuum and yet we live in wind tunnels. Many of our social problems have less to do with reality and our ability to address problems in reality than with how out of sorts are our social constructs, based as they are on mental models that are no longer effective approximations of reality. Global warming, for instance, is not techologically impossible or even terribly difficult to solve. It is a problem that traces back to the failure of social constructs as much as failure of technology - there are not even institutions responsible for this problem. The world we've invented includes few social constructs designed to deal with highly interdependent global realities.

Our reality is massively interdependent and full of emergent phenomenon - phenomenon that comes out of the interaction between two elements and not from the focus on any one element. Until we adapt a mental model to accord with this - and begin to design society in response to this reality - we'll continue to create our own most pressing problems.


Anonymous said...

This was a very good post.

Norman said...

"Our reality is massively interdependent and full of emergent phenomenon - phenomenon that comes out of the interaction between two elements and not from the focus on any one element."

But wouldn't be so much easier to paint a picture using only one color?

For me, the excerpt illuminates the path towards increased prosperity for all humanity. Our first step of framing the problem must ensure we are working to solve the right question.

Reminds me of Dr Deming, "There they were . . . doing their best . . . making things worse."

exskindiver said...

So--everything we need to know we do learn in kindergarten!

I have always been a believer in the developmental interaction approach to education.

"Growth and maturation involve conflict from within the self and with others. Conflict is necessary for development. How conflicts are resolved depend on the interactions among the unique nature of the child, the significant people in the child's life, and the demands of the culture."

I am going to need a nap after this one.

Life Hiker said...

I've been sitting here trying to rationalize the ideas of autonomy (a good thing) and leadership from your previous post with this idea of us needing new social constructs that recognize our interdependence and the need to solve the new mutual problems faced by humanity.

Perhaps we need the kind of leadership that can communicate the urgency of these problems and the kind of social constructs that are needed to solve them. Then we can all autonomously decide to get on board.

Our current political leader wouldn't even understand the two paragraphs above. The question is: who can be the person we so desperately need?

Norman said...

Life Hiker: At the risk of being drummed off the stage, let me suggest an interesting book called, "Human Capability" by Jaques and Cason

Life Hiker said...

OK. I'll find the book. I'm capable of that,as a human.

Ron Davison said...

at first blush, I felt like I'd be negligent about responding to all these really great comments - and then when saw the interaction emerge I thought - well, maybe this is liberation commenting.

Thank you. Thank you very much. (That was my Elvis imitation - I hope you liked it.)

emergent phenomenon is the stuff of value - in my mind. Trade creats value.

No need to take that nap - I took it for you. It seemed the least I could do when you came in with that great quote. (And by the way, was that quote from Chesca by chance, author of an education manual, or by someone else I should recognize?)

I'm going to write a post (soon) about the merging of liberation leadership with massive interdependency. It deserves its own explanation and you've hit the nail on the head by asking about how they match. To me, that's going to be one of the biggest challenges - encouraging autonomy while creating social constructs that acknowledge our interdependency: on the surface, those two seem very contradictory.
And, very witty response to Norman. I liked it.

cce said...

A good day at R World, great post, thoughtful comments...you can't ask for more than that. While we as humans are driven to selfishness and the promotion of our own good over the good of others (while the environment suffers, we are cozy in the McMansions we have created to cocoon ourselves and turn a blind eye to the fate of our planet and of the human race), but there is still some twinkle, some hope that our genetic make-up may somehow promote self sacrifice in the name of the greater good. See October's issue of The Atlantic for a great article>great article on the evolutionary roots of altruism.
(Not sure this directly applies to your post but it's what immediately came to mind as something hopeful and redeeming.

Ron Davison said...

good day indeed - great conversation around the virtual table.
I've been an Atlantic subscriber for decades - still my favorite magazine. In fact, over Life Hiker's blog, I recommended an article from the same issue just yesterday. And you have, indeed, hit on one of the keys to how we can have liberation and interdependence.

Life Hiker said...

I'm going to subscribe to The Atlantic at the ambulance base. That way I can read it while waiting for a call, and many others will get a chance to look at it.

David said...

This was great Ron, reminded me of CM's second book "The Evolving Self." Without stone throwing as is always done with respect to GWB (pointlessly), there is quite simply no place for this in politics and I doubt anyone (Bill Clinton maybe) motivated to think this way, that is, if they want to be elected. "Politics is the art of the possible." Terry Straeter told me when they let George Brown go that "he is too far ahead of us Dave." That's your problem Ron.

Norman said...


In short . . . I agree with you.
American politicians do not have enough time available to them to put solutions to long term social problems in place.

Thus, it is up to the rest of us. And our best hope is the tool available to us -- our work. Or more specifically, the social construct which allows us to work together -- for most of us, the corporation.

That's why Ron's post, "Re-discovering the Individual in a World of Massive Interdependency" and Jaques' book, "Social Power & the CEO" strike a chord of hope with me -- they both speak to a means for solving the large, long-term problems in society.

Ron Davison said...

Be careful - the articles in the Atlantic are long and engaging - your ambulance crew might be slower to respond with it at the station.

high praise that something of mine would remind you of Mihalyi. Thank you.

I do think that politicians want to do something long-term - they have read about guys like Lincoln and Roosevelt and aspire to that. As the general awareness is raised, so will their stated intentions.