Sunday, November 4, 2012

Approaching Infinity

Going about our work as people - either the top, middle or the bottom of society - there invariably comes a time when we run into self-limiting beliefs. This paradigm busting exercise usually helps; it comes from the late Sidney Coleman, as presented to his graduate physics class at Harvard:

Hold a ball in both hands and rotate it by three hundred and sixty degrees. That's not so awkward, you may say. Now hold the ball cupped in one hand, palm facing up. Your goal is to rotate the sphere while always keeping your palm facing up.

Keeping your palm facing up, rotate the ball inward towards your body. At ninety degrees - one quarter of a full rotation - the ball is comfortably tucked under your arm.

Keep on rotating in the same direction, palm facing up. At one hundred and eighty degrees - half a rotation - your arm now sticks out towards the back of your body to keep the ball cupped in your palm.

As you keep rotating to two hundred and seventy degrees - three quarters of a rotation - in order to maintain your palm facing up, your arm sticks awkwardly out to the side, ball precariously perched on top.

At this point, you may feel that it is impossible to rotate the last ninety degrees to complete one full rotation. If you try, however, you will find that you can continue rotating the ball; keeping your palm up by raising your upper arm and bending your elbow so that your forearm sticks straight forward.

The ball has now rotated by three hundred and sixty degrees - one full rotation. If you've done everything right, however, your arm should be crooked in a maximally painful and awkward position.

To relieve the pain, continue rotating by an additional ninety degrees to one and a quarter turns, palm up all the time. The ball should now be hovering over your head, and the painful tension in your shoulder should be somewhat lessened.

Finally, like a waiter presenting a tray containing the piece de resistance, continue the motion for the final three quarters of a turn, ending with the ball and your arm (wr.hat a relief) back in its original position.

If you have managed to perform these steps correctly, and without personal damage, you will find that the trajectory of the ball has traced out an infinity sign in space. You have just proven that, objects must be rotated around twice to return to their original configuration i.e. by seven hundred and twenty degrees.

Relating it back to behaviour we say things like: ”think twice before you speak” or ”once bitten, twice shy”. Actually, we have become conditioned to single cycles; without realizing that the second rotation is where the magic happens. We stop halfway when infinity is beckoning.

Although this exercise might seem no more than some fancy and painful basketball move, it’s a reminder that “second chances” complete unfinished business; and that we always have the option to give up what we know (the past) for what we can learn (the future). An idea that should console you as you ice your shoulder.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Large Small Civilization

The long-term prospects of civilization here on Earth are very uncertain. Many say it is a matter of when, not if, disaster will strike. By that prediction, the only sure way for humans to survive in the long run is to spread beyond the Earth and explore the galaxy.

The problem is that our chances of doing that, before our errant ways or some sort of catastrophe wipes us out, appear to be rather bleak. The probability for a civilization to survive the existential challenges and colonize its galaxy may be small, however, it is still above zero; the so-called ‘large civilizations’ of theoretical physics.

By extension there are ‘small civilizations’ too, but these die out before they spread much beyond their native planets. For the sake of the argument, let us assume that small civilizations do not grow much larger than ours currently; and die soon after they reach their maximum size.

Then, the total number of individuals who lived in such a civilization throughout its entire history, is comparable to the number of people who ever lived on Earth; which is about 400 billion people, 60 times the present Earth population. Although, we logically accept that a large civilization contains a much greater number of individuals.

Moving on...a galaxy like ours has about 100 billion stars. We don't know what fraction of stars have planets suitable for colonization; but with a conservative estimate of 0.01%, we would still have about 10 million habitable planets in our galaxy (give or take, what’s a million here or there!).

Assuming that each planet will reach a population similar to that of the Earth, we get 4 trillion individuals. (For our purposes lets focus on human-like civilizations, disregarding the planets inhabited by little green people). Of course, the numbers can be much higher if the civilization spreads well beyond its galaxy.

The crucial question of this thought experiment is: “What is the probability for a civilization to become large?” It takes 10 million (or more) small civilizations to provide the same number of individuals as a single large civilization. Thus, individuals likely live predominantly in large civilizations.

That, then, is where we should expect to find ourselves if we are typical inhabitants of the universe. Furthermore, a typical member of a large civilization should expect to live at a time when that civilization is close to its maximum size, since that is when most of its inhabitants are going to live.

These expectations are in a glaring conflict with what we actually observe; we either live in a small civilization or at the very beginning of a large civilization. However, based on the numbers above, both of these options are very unlikely - which indicates that the original assumption is probably wrong.

If, indeed, we are typical observers in the universe; then we have to conclude that the probability for a civilization to survive long enough to become large must be very tiny. In our example, it cannot be much more than one in 10 million. This is the notorious "Doomsday Argument".

However, the Doomsday Argument is statistical in nature. It does not predict anything about our civilization in particular. All it says is that, the odds for any given civilization to grow large are very low. At the same time, it proposes that some rare civilizations do beat the odds.

What would distinguish these exceptional civilizations? Apart from pure luck, apparently, civilizations that dedicate a substantial part of their resources to space colonization i.e. start the colonization process early and do not stop; stand a better chance of long-term survival.

With many other diverse and pressing needs, this strategy may be difficult to implement; and one of the reasons why large civilizations are so rare. On top of that, there is no guarantee either. Only when the colonization is well underway, and the number of colonies grows faster than they are dying out, can one declare a victory.

But, if we ever reach this stage in colonization of our galaxy, this would truly be a turning point in the history of our civilization. One question that needs to be addressed is: “Why is our galaxy not yet colonized?” There are stars in the galaxy that are billions of years older than our Sun, therefore, it should take much less than a billion years to colonize the entire galaxy.

Which probably means we are solely responsible for a huge chunk of real estate, 80 billion light years in diameter. Our crossing the threshold to a space-colonizing civilization would then really change everything. It will make a difference between a "flicker" civilization, which blinks in and out of existence, and a civilization that transforms itself.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Unsustainable Growth

The insanity of the explicit goal, of the Rio+20 Environmental Summit, was evident: sustainable development. That phrase could mean a lot of things in theory; in practice, what it means is, in the words of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, to "maintain economic growth and protect the environment."

In our current system, economic growth means the conversion of nature into product and human relationships into services. It is widely recognized, at least among environmentalists, that Earth cannot sustain much more of the former. Less understood is that the expansion of services bears a limit as well; that we witness today as the atomization of community, the disintegration of civic culture, the enclosure of the cultural commons and the deskilling and helplessness of nearly the entire population. There is little left that we do not already pay for.

Advocates of "sustainable growth" hope to expand the realm of goods and services - that is, increase consumption - without doing all of these things. In other words, they hope we can consume more and less at the same time. That is impossible, when growth means more purchasing power, more production, more automobiles, bigger houses, more electronics, more roads, more air travel... all of these contribute to economic growth as we define it today.

Transferring growth from these areas onto "green" industries is not a long-term way to sustain eternal growth either, although that transition is important in its own right. Certainly, we should get energy from sunlight rather than fossil fuels and nuclear power - but can we increase the number of solar panels forever? Certainly, we should stop clear-cutting, mining; and ranching the Amazon - but can we increase the production of those things forever? Obviously not.

Furthermore, the most effective green technologies involve simply using less: conserving energy, living in smaller houses, biking instead of driving, couch-surfing instead of building new hotels, sharing and borrowing instead of owning a personal copy of every good - and so on. All of these involve economic degrowth. In aspiring toward sustainable growth, then, the Rio+20 participants carried an irreconcilable contradiction with them into the conference. Given the way that growth is defined in our current system, sustainable growth is impossible.

This should not be a perplexing proposition. What being or system in nature grows forever without reaching a steady state? Most animals go through a growth phase (in humans we call it childhood) and then cease growing larger in size. Immature ecosystems likewise: they rapidly gain in biomass for a while before reaching a steady state. In both cases, development continues. The ecosystem grows in complexity and interconnectedness. The human being continues to grow emotionally and psychologically well after adolescence ends. Could the same dynamic apply to humanity as a species?

If so, then it is time for economic growth as we have known it to end. The differences at Rio+20 were irreconcilable, because in the current system - generally speaking - policies that foster economic growth harm the environment; and policies that heal the environment hurt economic growth. There are exceptions to this rule, but the essential contradiction is unavoidable. To address it, change on a very deep level is needed, change to the very nature of the economy, money and capitalism. It is not to end capitalism, but to change the nature of capital.

Humanity is coming of age, and the old growth paradigm is becoming obsolete. Any attempts to maintain it past its time will fail as dismally as Rio failed. If anything good came out of the summit, it was in the smaller-scale side agreements involving individual nations and corporations that in various ways embody a post-growth sensibility. The time has come to interrogate our basic notions of growth, development and economy. 

Like it or not, our relationship to Earth is changing. Indeed, our consciousness has changed already - probably no one at the Summit advocates the continued wanton despoilation of the planet. Our consciousness has shifted from the early-20th century ideal of conquering nature. However, our institutions, whether money or politics, are not yet in accordance with our changed consciousness. That is why it is so important to question the blind ideological assumptions - particularly that of sustainable growth - that underlie those institutions.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Excessive Deference Corrupts

Today's political leaders often start out better than we give them credit for. Often elected officials are people you'd admire if you met them in any other walk of life. They can be impressive people in a business with the toughest possible character test; many followers worship them. It's tough to be a normal person within that.

Most of our political leaders are also extremely accomplished people with at least some exceptional qualities. They are thrust into a position that would be the ruin of many humans. Power itself tends to corrupt and being surrounded by sycophants is itself a character test. There are, too, the many opportunities for personal indiscretions; and an apparent sense of invulnerability.

But, leaders have to wield power while knowing they may well be corrupted by it. To carry the awareness that, they are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. There is a tension, though, between why it is difficult to be a good leader; and requiring the art of following in one's followers. For them to be able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it.

It does not mean that we should be disrespectful of leaders, nor of any other human being. But, we ought to be skeptical of their intentions, knowing that power corrupts; and we ought to challenge them, for if having worshipful sycophants inflates one's self-importance, what better corrective than dissenters confident enough to convey that the leader has erred in his or her judgment?

More than anything else, we ought to constrain the power leaders wield. The average political chief executive is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He or she is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living talisman against natural disasters, economic downturns and spiritual malaise. He or she is the one who answers the phone at 3am; part therapist, social worker and national talk show host.

The vision of the political chief executive as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous it goes virtually unnoticed. And with great responsibility comes great power; in the political and business spheres alike. The top corporate offices concentrate enormous power in the hands of whichever professional manages to claw his/her way to the top. That executive power will continue to grow, until stakeholders reconsider the incentives they have given to such posts.

Being surrounded by people who inflate your importance and treat you as a figure of worship makes you a worse leader. The best leaders are at once willing to act decisively; as well as being prone to humility and introspection. They are attuned to the possibility that they too are fallible. Sycophants destroy that perspective and deferential followers invite bad leadership. The challenge today, is to distinguish just and unjust authority, not merely opposing authority.

But, challenges to authority aren't mere attitude, mounted for their own sake as an intellectual pose. Challenging authority is in fact indispensable if authority is to remain just, legitimate and tempered by the humility that is a precondition of good leadership. Most great leaders have been publicly mocked, challenged and disrespected somewhere along the line. For most of us the problem isn't an inability to follow, but rather a refusal to constrain our leaders; in ways that force them to resist the temptations toward excesses inherent in their positions.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Kula Moola

At a time when economics implied the theories of either Karl Marx or Adam Smith, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski turned everything upside down; challenging conventional ideas about the nature of wealth and the purpose and meaning of exchange, even as he revealed the dynamics of a contemporary oceanic trading network, so vast and complex that it offered clues as to the very forces that ultimately led to the settlement of the Pacific Ocean.

Malinowski wanted to know how people could possibly maintain social connections across violent currents and an open ocean. While Polynesians drew their subsistence almost exclusively from the land, their commerce moved over water. On the face of it, nothing they produced could rationalize the risks even of a single voyage. Yet, they had a curious system of exchange in which nothing of evident worth or value moved at great risk and with the promise of immense prestige.

He discovered a trading network that linked scores of communities over thousands of square kilometers of ocean, small huddled clusters of humanity that clung to coral reefs and spread over the remains of sunken mountains.

Known as the Kula ring, it was a system of balanced reciprocity based on the ceremonial exchange of two items, necklaces of discs chiseled from red spondylus shells known as the soulava, and armbands of white cone shell, the mwali. These were strictly symbolic objects with no intrinsic or utilitarian value.

And yet, for at least five hundred years, men had been prepared to risk their lives to carry these jewels across thousands of kilometers of open sea. The necklaces moved clockwise through the years, while the armbands flowed in reverse, always travelling in a counter-clockwise direction. Each individual involved in the trade had at least two partners; relationships that like marriages were intended to last for life, and even be inherited by subsequent generations.

To one partner a voyager would give a necklace in exchange for an armband of equal value, and to the other he would pass along an armband and receive in return a necklace. Each contact had his second partner on another island, and thus there was a continuous distribution chain. The exchanges did not occur all at once. Once in possession of a highly valued object, one was expected to savor for a time the prestige it conferred; even as one made plans ultimately to pass it along.

As a single object made its way around the Kula, perhaps taking as long as twenty years to complete the passage, only to continue again, its value grew with each voyage; with each story of hardship and wonder, witchcraft and the wind, and with the names of all the great men whose lives it had passed through. Thus the sacred objects were in constant motion, encircling the scattered islands in a ring of social and magical power.

Malinowski understood and wrote of the functional purpose of the Kula ring. It established relationships over great distances among peoples of different languages, facilitating the ultimate movement back and forth of utilitarian objects, pigments and dyes, stone axes, obsidian, ceramics, polished ceremonial stones, woven goods and certain foods.

The Kula also provided the context for the display of prestige and status upon which the authority of the hereditary chiefs was based. Their names were associated with the most valuable armbands and necklaces, and it fell to them to organize and lead the voyages. Preparations were rigorous and costly. Men from widely separated villages had to be coordinated. Gardens had to be planted simply to grow the food to be consumed during the preparations for the journey.

Months went by and with each passing day the excitement grew about the voyage. As Malinowski so elegantly distilled in the title of his book, the voyagers really were as Argonauts sailing forth into the unknown, in search of honor and glory, uncertain whether they would ever again see home and family, driven by the thrill of adventure and the siren call of the open water.

It is this flash of the human spirit, that becomes the vehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. It forges, through connection, an integral bond between the past, present and future; making us, as a species, more than the sum of our parts. It brings into our activities connection, belonging and affirmation.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Thousand Words

The Nave of York Minster is covered in 1500 square meters of real grass as the Minster is prepared for the York Minster Rose Dinner.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Quotation Nation

Give a man a gun and he can rob a bank:
give a man a bank and he can rob the world.


Monday, June 4, 2012


We, as a species, are always telling ourselves 'stories' about how we relate to the rest of life on Earth. Most of these stories get rehashed and repackaged through the ages, so one is familiar with the stories even if one disagrees with them. One of the main stories that humans are telling themselves in the current epoch is: we are the bringers forth of the technology which facilitates evolution, the bringers forth of the Earth's technological advance. In order to do this we need to impart a certain amount of creative destruction - destroy in order to save. The Economist has this to say: 

In the classic science-fiction film “2001”, the ship’s computer (HAL), faces a dilemma. His instructions require him both to fulfill the ship’s mission (investigating an artifact near Jupiter) and to keep the mission’s true purpose secret from the ship’s crew. To resolve the contradiction, he tries to kill the crew. As robots become more autonomous, the notion of computer-controlled machines facing ethical decisions is moving out of the realm of science fiction and into the real world. Society needs to find ways to ensure that they are better equipped to make moral judgments than HAL was.

Military technology, unsurprisingly, is at the forefront of the march towards self-determining machines. Its evolution is producing an extraordinary variety of species. There is a flying surveillance drone the weight of a wedding ring, and one that carries 2.7 tons of bombs. Robots are spreading in the civilian world, too, from the flight deck to the operating theatre. Passenger aircraft have long been able to land themselves. Driverless trains are commonplace. Fully self-driving vehicles are being tested around the world; Google’s driverless cars digitally map neighborhoods.

As they become smarter and more widespread, autonomous machines are bound to end up making life-or-death decisions in unpredictable situations, thus assuming - or at least appearing to assume - moral agency. Weapons systems currently have human operators “in the loop”; but as they grow more sophisticated, it will be possible to shift to “on the loop” operation with machines carrying out orders autonomously.

As that happens, they will be presented with ethical dilemmas. Should a drone fire on a house where a target is known to be hiding, which may also be sheltering civilians? Should a driverless car swerve to avoid pedestrians if that means hitting other vehicles or endangering its occupants? Should a robot involved in disaster recovery tell people the truth about what is happening if that risks causing a panic? Such questions have led to the emergence of the field of “machine ethics”, which aims to give machines the ability to make such choices appropriately - in other words, to tell right from wrong.

One way of dealing with these difficult questions is to avoid them altogether, by banning autonomous robots. But, autonomous robots could do much more good than harm. Instead, society needs to develop ways of dealing with the ethics of robotics - and get going fast. The best known set of guidelines for robo-ethics are the “three laws of robotics” coined by Isaac Asimov, a science-fiction writer. The laws require robots to protect humans, obey orders and preserve themselves - in that order. Unfortunately, the laws are of little use in the real world.

Regulating the development and use of autonomous robots will require a rather more elaborate framework. Progress is needed in three areas in particular: (i) In order to allocate responsibility, autonomous systems must keep detailed logs so that they can explain the reasoning behind their decisions when necessary, (ii) where ethical systems are embedded into robots, the judgments they make need to be ones that seem right to most people and (iii) more collaboration to draw up new rules for robots which are left to their own devices.

Both ethicists and engineers stand to benefit from working together: ethicists may gain a greater understanding of their field by trying to teach ethics to machines, and engineers need to reassure society that they are not taking any ethical short-cuts. Technology has driven mankind’s progress, but each new advance has posed troubling new questions. Autonomous machines are no different. The sooner the questions of moral agency they raise are answered, the easier it will be for mankind to enjoy the benefits that they will undoubtedly bring.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Speaking Body Language

Before a critical meeting with your boss, an important customer; or your teenage son or daughter, do you spend time mentally roughing out and revising what you are going to say? If so, you are misdirecting your energy. Spend time instead practicing how to walk, stand, sit and quickly grasp how other people are moving their bodies.

When it comes to research on power, there is plenty of evidence on the importance of body posture and tone of voice.  That research indicates that it isn’t the quality of an argument that will persuade people. It is rather how the protagonist conveys it. Our status is determined by physical attributes and nonverbal cues. People decide if we are competent in less than 100 milliseconds.

Neither is intelligence a strong predictor of leadership. The pitch, volume and pace of your voice affect what people think you said about five times as much as the actual words you use. We are, however, impressed with our own arguments. So, it sometimes pays to repeat back to someone you are trying to impress, what he or she said.

In order to prepare for authority issues in the job market; MBA students now team up with drama teachers, who help them practice. Actors, it turns out, are exceptionally good at paying attention to other actors. The idea is that MBA graduates avoid getting into professional or personal trouble later in their careers, because they don’t know how to be deferential to other people when it is appropriate. Or, not knowing how to take charge when that is called for.

There are times, when you want to play 'low' status'; which means you are making the relationship work and not necessarily giving anything important away. 'Playing low' can lift others up and make them feel good about themselves. For 'high-status' people in an organization, telling a self deprecating joke can make you more approachable. 

Many of us know the boss who says: “My door is always open,” but their body language adds “but really, don’t come in here.” In facing a subordinate who doesn’t know he or she is a subordinate, a few extra moments of silence can send the right signal.

Your posture affects you as well as other people. Try this: sit down, press your knees together, hold your elbows close to the sides and lean forward. While in that position say: "I am totally in charge." You will probably find it incongruous and won't believe your own words. But, if you were to lower your shoulders, drape an outstretched arm over the back of a chair and spread your legs wide; taking up more space - now that would feel different.

High-status people generally let their bodies take more space than low-status people. That alone makes them both appear and feel relaxed. Like others, you probably know this on your gut level. There is a body language of power, and we know it. But, we don't know we know it.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Playing With Perception

All of us want to affect the world for the better. We look around us and see problems - crime, pollution, child abuse - and because we're a society of rules, we believe that laws and religious commandments will help us make changes. For example, we elect legislators who pass more and more laws every year in the hopes that these rules will make citizens' lives better. By contrast, the ancient Greeks were a people of the concept - they knew that there was nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come. Because they manipulated ideas so elegantly, they were able to invent democracy, develop philosophy and systematize mathematics. 

Their Roman neighbors, on the other hand, were great lawmakers; and Roman codes have influenced many modern Western laws. When faced with problems, the Greek philosophers conceptualized new systems; while the Romans called on their armies to enforce the precepts. The wisdom practitioners of the indigenous world, however, don't live by rules or ideas. If they want to change their world, they don't pass new laws or come up with new theories. Instead, they choose to change the way they perceive a problem. By changing their perception, they transform a challenge into an opportunity. 

It enables them to change their perceptions and 'dream' their world into being; experiencing events in such a way, that they no longer take life personally. At this level of perception, things no longer happen to you; they simply happen. It doesn't rain on you to make you wet; it simply rains. When you change your perception of the events you experience, you also alter the way these situations live within you. You are no longer the cause or the effect of anything, and you sense a tremendous relief because the world is exactly as it should be - and it doesn't need you to fix it. 

In the West, we tend to associate our perception with the dozens of states of awareness we're familiar with. For example, we're in one mode of awareness when we're just waking up or drifting off to sleep, another when we're in reverie; another when we're enraged, and so on. In each one, a different part of the brain is active - so we refer to them as 'states of consciousness', which are products of the mind. Perceptual levels, on the other hand, exist independently of the mind. 

There are four perceptual levels in the indigenous world. These levels correspond to the four domains of manifestation: the physical world (our body), the realm of thoughts and ideas (mind), the realm of myth (soul) and the world of spirit (energy). These perceptual levels are associated with the four energetic bodies that make up the human energy field. They're stacked inside each other like Russian nesting dolls, with the physical body innermost, the mental body enveloping and informing the physical shell; the soul enveloping the mental and physical, and the spiritual body outermost, informing and organizing them all like a blueprint. 

When we shift from one level of perception up to the next, we retain our ability to function at the lower realm; but we have a much wider view of what we're experiencing. Its like the old story about a traveler who comes across two stonecutters. He asks the first, "What are you doing?" and receives the reply, "Squaring the stone." He then walks over to the second stonecutter and asks, "What are you doing?" and receives the reply, "I am building a cathedral." In other words, both men are performing the same task, but one of them is aware that he has the choice to be part of a greater dream. 

Albert Einstein once said that, the problems we face in life cannot be solved at the level where they were created. To that end, being able to shift to a higher realm of perception can help us find solutions to our problems; whereas before we were only experiencing distress and separation. In this way, we learn that there's a solution to every problem we encounter in the physical world; in the mind and in the soul. We learn that we can't eliminate scarcity in our lives by getting another job, or heal feelings of abandonment or anger by understanding our childhood wounds. We can only fix these problems at the level above the one they were created in.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Pricing Invulnerability

Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work; where she has spent the past 10 years studying courage, shame and authenticity. Here she discussses how, in our anxious world, we often protect ourselves by closing off parts of our lives that leave us feeling most vulnerable. Yet invulnerability has a price. When we knowingly or unknowingly numb ourselves to what we sense threatens us, we sacrifice an essential tool for navigating uncertain times - joy. This talk will explore how and why fear and collective scarcity has profoundly dangerous consequences on how we live, love, parent, work and engage in relationships - and how simple acts can restore our sense of purpose and meaning.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Towards The Partner State

Can we learn something about the politics of the new mode of value creation, something that would be useful not just for particular communities, but to society in general? Is there perhaps a new model of power and democracy co-evolving out of these new social practices, which may be an answer to the contemporary crisis of democracy? The answer has to be an emphatic yes, supporting the argument that society is witnessing the emergence of a new model for the state. A peer-to-peer (P2P) state, if you will.

In the emerging institutional model of peer production, most visibly in the free software industry, we can distinguish an interplay between three partners: (i) a community of contributors that create a commons of knowledge, software or design; (ii) an entrepreneurial coalition that creates market value on top of that commons; and (iii) a set of for-benefit institutions which manage the infrastructure of cooperation. There is a clear institutional division of labour between these three players. The contributors create the user value that is deposited in the shared innovation commons of knowledge, design and code.

The for-benefit institution enables and defends the general infrastructure of cooperation, which makes the project collectively sustainable. For example the Wikimedia Foundation collects the funds to support the server space without which access to the Wikipedia would become impossible. The entrepreneurial coalition makes the individual contributors sustainable by providing an income; and very often they provide means for the continued existence of the for-benefit associations as well.

Amazingly though, current contributor communities are not democracies. Why is that so? Very simply, because democracy, the market and hierarchy are modes of allocation of scarce resources. In hierarchy, our superiors decide; in the market prices decide; and in a democracy ‘we the people’ decide. But, where resources are abundant - as they are with immaterial knowledge, code and design - communities contain the type of power that is meritocratic, distributed and everyone can contribute without permission. However, such a ‘permissionlessness’ requires expertise, not communal consensus. Peer production solves this tension in an elegant way a la Wikipedia.

What is the relationship between this entrepreneurial coalition and the commons from which they derive their value? The coalition supports the individual commoners in their livelihood, and may contribute to the for-benefit institution as well. For example, IBM pays salaries to the developers contributing to the Linux pool, and it supports the non-profit Linux Foundation, with subsidies. In this way, they co-produce and sustain the commons on which their success is built. Linux has become an economic joint venture of a set of companies, in the same way that Visa is an economic joint venture of a set of financial institutions. The point is that, even with shareholder companies the community's value creation is at the core of the process; it is in other words, already an ethical economy.

Peer production also rests on the often-costly infrastructure of cooperation. There would be no Wikipedia without the funding for its servers, no free software or open hardware without similar support mechanisms. This is why open source communities have created a new social institution: the for-benefit association. It’s an important social innovation because, unlike classic non-profits or non-governmental institutions, they do not operate from the point-of-view of scarcity. The new for-benefits only have an active role in enabling and empowering the community to cooperate by provisioning its infrastructure, not by commanding its production processes. These associations exist for the sole purpose of benefitting the community of which they are the expression.

Now, what shall we call an institution that is responsible for the common good of all the participants; in this case, not the inhabitants of a territory, but of people involved in a similar project? This type of for-benefit institution has a very similar function to what we commonly assign to the state. Can we then, imagine, a new type of partner state? The Partner State, first theorized by Italian political scientist Cosma Orsi, is a state form that enables and empowers the social creation of value by its citizens. It protects the infrastructure of cooperation that is the whole of society. It does on a territorial scale, what the for-benefit institutions do on a project-scale.

Such a Partner State already exists, at least in a local embryonic form as the city of Brest. Michel Briand, assistant to the Mayor, and his team of city workers had a brilliant idea: why not use the virtual, to enhance physical social life in the city? The team created local versions of Facebook, YouTube and Flickr, helped local associations develop a online presence, invested heavily in training; and even had a physical library where citizens could borrow production material. One of their projects was the revitalization of old smuggling trails in order to attract the hiking crowd. So, they decided to 'virtually’ enrich the trails.

And here is where their social innovation comes in: the city council did not do by substituting themselves to the citizenry (i.e. state provisioning), nor did they ask the private sector to carry this out (privatization or public-private partnerships). No, what they did was to enable and empower local teams of citizens, to create added value. Locally, the town of Stellenbosch has rolled out free Wi-Fi through crowd-sourced donations. There are of course other examples to mention as well. The Austrian region of Linz has declared itself a Commons Region; the city of Naples has created "An Assistant to the Mayor on the Commons" position, and San Francisco city council has created a Commission to promote the sharing economy.

Open source models show us a new possible reality, a model where the democratic civic sphere, productive commons and a vibrant market can co-exist for mutual benefit:

⁃ At the core of value creation are various commons, where the innovations are deposited for all humanity to share and to build on.
⁃ These commons are enabled and protected through non-profit civic associations, with as national equivalent the Partner State, who then empower and enable that social production.
⁃ Around the commons emerges a vibrant commons-oriented economy undertaken by different kinds of ethical companies - whose legal structures tie them to the values and goals of the commons communities - and not absentee and private shareholders intent of maximizing profit at any cost.

Where the three circles intersect, there are the citizens deciding on the optimal shape of their provisioning systems. The only thing left to do is to have an answer to the crucial question: how does global governance look like in P2P civilization? We need to transform the global material empire, which at present dominates world affairs for the benefit of a few, and redesign the ineffectual global institutions that are presently inadequate to deal with global challenges. While peer production will undoubtedly also emerge as a drive for resilience in bad times, a really thriving commons-based society requires a Partner State: a network of democratically run for-benefit institutions that protect the common good on a territorial scale.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Big Blue Valuation

Putting a price on something that is priceless is, well, tricky. It is, however, possible to assign a number to how much damage is being done to that thing. In the case of the oceans, a conservative estimate of the cost of climate change is that by the year 2100 it will amount to nearly $2 trillion annually in 2010 dollars, or about 0.4% of global GDP. Any number that purports to describe an economy nine decades hence must be taken with a dollop of salt, of course. But it should not be dismissed out of hand.

Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth Stanton, economists at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), a non-profit research organisation, arrived at their figure by looking at five measures: how much fisheries and tourism stand to lose and what the economic impact would be of rising sea levels, more storms and less carbon being absorbed by oceans. If the world continues to warm at its present rate and temperatures rise by 4°C by 2100, they reckon, the total will come to $1.98 trillion. If drastic measures are taken to cut emissions and they rise by only 2.2°C, it will be $612 billion.

This does not take into account unexpected catastrophic events. What happens if Greenland’s ice-sheet collapses? What if all the methane stored in the Arctic is released? The researches prefer not to contemplate such scenarios. As a result, their could be viewed as a conservative estimate. The economic argument of the SEI’s new book, “Valuing the Ocean”, is that the world stands to save at least $1 trillion every year by doing something about climate change.

The point of the exercise is, of course, to make policymakers - and the public - take notice. Dr Ackerman would like to see climate change become as much a piece of furniture in people’s heads as is airport security or the risk that their house might catch fire. He has long been a vociferous critic of the cost-benefit analyses used in policy-making. Instead, Dr Ackerman suggests looking at combating climate change as a form of insurance.

The insurance analogy is imperfect though. Insurance is about pooling individual risks; it is by definition impossible to pool a risk that affects the whole world. In that respect fighting global warming more akin to defense spending - stumping up now to fend of an uncertain future threat - which few question as unreasonable even in the most peacable of times. Making the oceans a topic of conversation is difficult; $2 trillion ought to concentrate minds.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Global Ambassadors

Focus on abundance. This is an approach not normally associated with bare knuckle commercialism. Yet, no less than one of the global economy's corporate giants has teamed up with a NGO to do just that. So, credit where credit is due. The Global Ambassadors Program was developed in partnership between Bank of America and Vital Voices, a leading international nongovernmental organization training and mentoring emerging women leaders.

The goal of the Global Ambassadors Program is to invest in women leaders around the world to help address economic disparities and create a more prosperous and secure world. Over the next five years, they expect to mobilize over 225 Global Ambassadors to reach at least 6,750 women leaders. Bank of America and Vital Voices’ aim is to provide thousands of women leaders with the skills, tools and knowledge they need to positively contribute to their communities, the global economy and a more sustainable future.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Human Machinations

The myth of the machine has implications, which go well beyond the usual terms of discussion in the peak oil scene. One of those implications unfolds from the way that so many people, who are concerned about peak oil, fixate obsessively on the hope that some kind of machine will solve the problem.

There are at least three ways, in which this fixation gets in the way of any meaningful response to the end of the age of cheap abundant energy. The first, of course, is that peak oil isn't a problem; because by definition a problem, at least potentially, has a solution. Peak oil has no solution. That's true in the narrow sense of the term - no possible turn of events will allow industrial civilization to extract a limitless supply of crude oil from a finite planet.

Peak oil is, thus, a predicament rather than a problem; since nothing we or anyone else can do will make it go away. Instead, we and our descendants down through the millennia to come, will have to live with the reality of a world much less lavishly stocked with concentrated energy sources; than the one our ancestors inherited a few short centuries ago. The task awaiting us, and our descendants, is that of finding creative and humane responses to that implacable reality.

The second sense, in which the obsession with machines gets in the way of a useful response to the predicament of peak oil, is that it pushes responsibility for doing something onto someone else. The downside of depending on someone else to do that or any other job, of course, is that dependence always has a political cost. Frank Herbert explains this with commendable precision: "Once men turned their thinking over to machines, in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them."

The same dynamic is present whenever people allow themselves to become dependent on machines. Its doubtful whether ordinary people have any influence worth noting over the decisions involved in building giant wind turbines say, or developing thorium reactors, or turning arable land into giant biodiesel farms. This makes it easy to insist that, steps like these, are the appropriate response to the coming of peak oil.

No doubt, the sheer convenience involved in this approach has much to do with its popularity; but there's another factor involved. An enormous amount of rhetoric about the future these days starts from the assumption that, the lifestyles of the middle classes in today's industrial societies are normal and ought to be available indefinitely - at least to those same middle classes. There's nothing normal at all about strawberries in midwinter or vacations in the tropics, only a civilization surfing a tsunami of cheap energy could convince itself that such habits are.

It's hard to think of anything that flies in the face of contemporary attitudes more comprehensively, than the suggestion that human beings are more efficient than machines under any circumstances at all. Still, if you consider the whole system upon which each of the two depends, the superiority of the human is easy to see. A laptop computer all by itself is an oddly shaped paperweight; human beings do not suffer from the same limitations. A human being all by itself is capable of meeting essential operating needs in a pinch, using only the very diffuse energy sources and raw materials available in a natural environment.

Computers by contrast need electricity, and thus the entire system that produces the electricity and keeps it flowing. To make a laptop computer more than a toy, you need the internet, and thus a far more complex system; which among other things uses a vast amount of additional energy. And, of course, to produce the laptop; the electrical grid and the internet in the first place. Counting all the products and services needed by all the economic sectors that contribute to their manufacture and functioning, you need a fairly large proportion of the entire industrial economy of the modern world.

The myth of industrial progress is coming to pieces around us; the myth of the machine will follow it in due time. In the interval before they dissolve and are replaced by narratives better suited to the needs and possibilities of the deindustrial age, there is a great deal that can be done to begin the rediscovery of the human, to preserve those teachings from the past that can fill critical needs in the future, and to sketch out the first rough drafts of new disciplines that will apply the creative and productive possibilities of the individual to the challenges ahead.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Blackboard Blogger

Alfred Sirleaf is an analog blogger. He runs the “Daily News”, a news hut by the side of a major road in the middle of Monrovia. He started it a number of years ago, stating that he wanted to get news into the hands of those who couldn’t afford newspapers, in the language that they could understand.

Alfred serves as a reminder that simple is often better, just because it works. The lack of electricity never throws him off. The lack of funding means he’s creative in ways that he recruits people from around the city and country to report news to him. He uses his cell phone as the major point of connection between him and the 10,000 (he says) that read his blackboard daily.

Not all Liberians who read his news are literate, so he makes use of symbols. Whether it’s a UN or military helmet, a poster of a soccer player or a bottle of colored water to denote gas prices, he is determined to get the message out in any way that he can. Advertising works here too. It’s $5 to be on the bottom level, $10 to be on the sideboard and $25 on the main section. He doesn’t get a lot of advertising, but he manages to scrape by.

His plans for the future include decentralizing his work; this means opening up identical locations, in other parts of Monrovia, and in a few of the larger cities around the country. One shouldn't bet against Alfred either, he’s a scrappy entrepreneur on a mission to bring information and news to ordinary Liberians. He’s succeeded thus far, and has every chance to expand his idea.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Economics of Obedience

It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings — Wendell Berry

My friend, Richard Hames, proposes a challenging hypothesis – “our present consensus state is delusional, as is our belief that we access information and our resulting belief that we’re informed. For instance, has capitalism worked when the largest communist country on earth actually owns a controlling interest in the debt of the largest capitalist country? Has our social conscience evolved when there are more humans (per capita) in slavery today, than at any recorded period of history?

Vast numbers of people are in a similar state today; they have little conception of the freedom, democracy or liberty they supposedly have in abundance.” However, this state is beginning to shift. Éttiene de la Boétie, in his famous discourse on voluntary servitude, poses the central question: “Why do people consent to their own enslavement?” One of his central insights is that, to topple a tyranny, the victims only need to withdraw their consent and support.

La Boétie also had the further insight that humans are free by nature, but possibly the most important lesson we can learn from his discourse is leverage. In the absence of leverage, or the use of it, victims bring about their own subjugation i.e. they ‘win’ their own enslavement. Thus, people who lose their freedom also lose their valor (strength of mind, bravery); and with it their ability to respond.

Since freedom is our natural state, we are not only in possession of it, but we should have the instinct to defend it. Defenders of freedom used to be ineffective because they were not known to one another. In fact, facing the enormous powers arrayed to maintain the status quo, our minds quail in anguish. The temporary glimpses of a more beautiful world are all the more disheartening when viewed as temporary respites from the soul-crushing, money-driven world we are used to.

But, there are always some people who cannot be tamed, subjugated or enslaved. Even if freedom were to be entirely extinguished, these people would re-invent it. Among these people, who have freed their minds, there is competition to do good for humanity - no matter what the odds are. We see their work in the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, as inner-city permaculture, with social entrepreneurship and many other engagements that are changing our world.

We humans have learned a lot in the last half-century, and our consciousness has reached a critical point in its development. It will be the same as it is with transformation on a personal level. In transitioning into a new way of being, we might revisit the old once or twice and try to fit back into the womb; but when we do, we find that it can no longer accommodate us, and a state of being we once inhabited for years becomes intolerable in weeks or days.

Take wealth for instance. A corollary to the non-hoarding of gifts and to the social nature of their giving is that wealth in gift cultures tends to be publicly transparent. When wealth was land and livestock, there was no hiding one’s wealth; and therefore no shirking the social expectations incumbent upon it. Everyone knew who had given what to whom. Translated into modern money dynamics, this suggests that all monetary holdings should be transparent.

Many people would find the idea of no financial privacy very threatening. Since money today is so bound up with self, we would feel exposed, vulnerable - as indeed, in today’s society, we would be. In a different context, though, financial transparency is part of being a person who has nothing to fear, who is comfortable in a future society. Moreover, financial transparency would make many kinds of criminal activity more difficult.

The history of civilization is also a journey from original abundance, to the extremes of scarcity and then back toward abundance at a higher level of complexity. Whether or not there ever was, or still is, a conspiracy to maintain scarcity; on some level humanity has not been ready for abundance, and probably won’t be ready for some decades to come, until we have entered deeply and thoroughly the spirit of the gift. It is our perceptions, and not our means, that engender scarcity.

We cannot predict how this new age will unfold in linear time. We do sense, however, that by the end of our lifetimes, we will live in a world unimaginably more beautiful than the one we were born into. And it will be a world that is palpably improving year after year. Work will be about: “How may I best give of my gifts?” instead of, “How can I make a living?” We will live in a richness of intimacy and community that hardly exists today.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Hedonistic Sustainability

Bjarke Ingels' architecture is luxurious, sustainable and community driven. At TEDxEast he shows his playful designs, from a factory chimney that blows smoke rings to a ski slope built atop a waste processing plant.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Change Challenge

Most people find change difficult. It tends to make people feel anxious, criticised and insecure. There are many ways to protect oneself individually from uncomfortable feelings, but the strongest protections - and the hardest to challenge - are often culturally sanctioned or embedded in social systems and structures of organisations.

The first entry, on each paragraph of the list below, is from a 1980's Local Government Training Board about the management of change. The list captures the way people at the time would use the rigid bureaucracy and formal roles of local government to convince themselves and others that change was impossible. 

The same process – with different villains – can be observed amongst modern corporations. This time it’s the workings of the market, the IT department or the mercurial customer that are invoked. Such statements are usually the tip of an iceberg, the overt form of a much more deep-seated resistance to what is being asked. The second listing of each paragraph represents the updating of the 1980's list, to now represent the standard objections to action on climate change by business: 

1. Our work is different 
1. It’s not competitive

2. Our work is no different to anyone else’s 
2. It won’t be profitable

3. It won’t work for a large Department 
3. It will inhibit innovation

4. It won’t work for a small Department 
4. There isn’t a market

5. We’ve been doing it that way for 25/15/10/5 years 
5. The public aren’t interested

6. We’ve never done it before 
6. The board/workforce/customers won’t like it

7. We tried it once before 
7. My line manager will say no

8. Another Department tried it once before 
8. The IT department won’t like it

9. No one’s ever tried it before 
9. Health and Safety will object

10. Nothing new about. We’ve been doing it all the time 
10. We can’t afford it

11. It’s only a passing fashion 
11. We can’t add unnecessary costs

12. It’s too difficult/complex 
12. We haven’t got time for it

13. It all sounds too easy/simple 
13. It will reduce efficiency

14. Why change it when it’s ticking over nicely, thank you very much 
14. Staff already have too much to do

15. We know more about this than anyone 
15. We do all that anyway 

16. It’s so completely new to us 
16. We already say we’re doing it

17. I’ve heard it all before 
17. We tried that in the 80's/90's/last year

18. This is the only way to do it 
18. It’s so last century

19. It can’t be done 
19. It isn’t sexy

20. You could spend all your time thinking up newfangled ideas 
20. It’s not our image

21. The boss/committee won’t like/accept it 
21. It’s a passing fashion

22. The staff won’t like/accept it 
22. That’s the job of the ‘Green Champions’

23. The clients won’t like it 
23. CSR takes care of that

24. Treasurers/Clerks/Personnel won’t like it 
24. That’s the job of Government.

25. The committee won’t like it 
25. It’s not compulsory

26. It’s not in my interests to change it 
26. We’ll wait till we’re forced to

27. The rules won’t allow it, it’s against standing orders 
27. It will lead to unnecessary regulation

28. I don’t believe in it (because I should feel wretched if I did) 
28. It will drive jobs overseas

29. I believe in it in principle, but... 
29. It’s too hard for our sector

30. We got into a mess last time we tried to change it 
30. It’s not relevant to our sector

31. It’s policy 
31. It’s not viable for a small company

32. It’s a statutory requirement 
32. It’s not viable for a big company

33. This is not the time/the place 
33. We’re too small to make a difference

34. We haven’t got the staff for this at present 
34. We’ll do it when everyone else is

35. We haven’t got the money for this at present 
35. We’ll have to exempt the board/sales department/travel budget/ procurement /conferences

Today, business culture is quite different, of course, but the process is the same. Where 1980's local government employees fell back on the idea of an inevitable and unchanging bureaucracy; modern private sector employees invoke the structures of the market, the attitudes of the customer or the arcane practices of the IT department to explain why - although they might like to - they will not be taking action.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Public Wisdom

Our existing form of republican democracy is clearly unable to deal with 21st century challenges. We need more wisdom in our public policies, our public budgets and our public conversations - and we need it soon. It is both vital and possible to generate authentic collective wisdom through the conversations of ordinary citizens.

'Public wisdom' results when the public - as a whole or in randomly selected 'mini-publics' - engages in learning about, reflecting on and discussing public affairs in ways that take into account what needs to be taken into account to decide what will produce long term, inclusive benefits.

We are more able than ever to subscribe to such a randomly selected mini-public - and its various forms of temporary, well-informed 'citizen deliberative councils'. We are aware of the hundreds of these councils that have been held around the world and how they have been used. They tell us about new forms of councils that could be developed and new ways they could be used - including organizing them at grassroots levels and through using the Internet.

These councils provide a way to readily and affordably generate a legitimate, authentic, coherent and wise voice of 'we, the people' - a voice for the general welfare that is not currently present in our political discourse. It moves us beyond partisanship to a place of collective responsibility for our shared destiny. It reclaims the idea of 'we, the people' as a coherent political force that integrates the diversity of the whole citizenry, rather than a catchphrase used by one more special-interest group that attempts to speak for the people; but doesn't really embrace our full range of perspectives and needs.

It comes down to: (a) the role of power - especially how to balance power in a democracy and move from 'power-over' to 'power-with'; (b) the need to rein in corporate and financial domination of elections and government; (c) the strengths and limitations of both representative and direct democracy; (d) the polarization of our current political life and strategies to creatively move beyond it without dishonorable compromises and deals; (e) dozens of high quality conversational processes for mass public participation; and (f) how the power of public wisdom might actually be institutionalized in our governments.

This is a radically new way to think about democracy. It embraces diversity, engages participation and addresses conflicts and ignorance in profoundly different ways than we are used to hearing socially, on talk shows, in public hearings and within the halls of government. This is not a kind of direct democracy, where everyone votes on everything. Its bottom line is not just participation or winning, but collective wisdom.

Without deliberation we don't get public wisdom. The popular 'wisdom of crowds' idea - that the aggregated responses of many independent people generates better answers than any one of them, or even experts - is sometimes useful for crowd-sourced estimates and predictions. But, it does not generate true wisdom. That takes deliberative conversation among diverse people.

During deliberation when anyone complains about something the obvious questions are: "What do you think should be done about that?" or "If you were in charge, what would you do about it?" - always channeling participants' thinking towards solving the problem without privileging any particular solution. If someone starts to argue or invalidating another statement, the next question becomes: "What's your concern?" - translating conflict into concerns composts antagonism into creativity.

This approach engenders a quality of conversation Jim Rough calls choice-creating. Although Rough doesn't consider choice-creating to be deliberation, it provides a far more dynamic way than institutionalized forms of deliberation. This process is deeply creative and non-linear, following the group's energy rather than any pre-determined course or agenda - and it is extremely powerful.

Underlying all these details about citizen deliberative councils is a larger purpose: to bring about the urgently needed next step in the evolution of democracy itself. It is desirable and likely that regular use of citizens deliberative councils can help transform 'We the People' from a patriotic myth to a highly conscious and intelligently coherent political force. It can help bring real vitality to this ultimate democratic authority - the people - that remains fragmented, entranced and unable to act clearly and consistently on its own behalf.