Sunday, January 8, 2017

Book Review "Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century”

Book Review
Future Shock is alive and well - in fact it is safe to say that we are all refugees from our own childhood. And because the world is changing so rapidly it is difficult to understand just how profoundly the world has changed. 

There are many books looking at the future and even more looking at the past. Understanding the past doesn’t necessarily prepare us to understand the future - hindsight is not foresight. However, understanding history enables us to hear the rhymes in the past that may echo in the present and so help us to anticipate tomorrow’s mytho-poetry.


Understanding the rhymes of history is why I highly recommend a wonderful book that presents a brief and special history of the 20th Century, John Higgs’s “Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century” 

This book contributes to a deeper, more mythic anticipation of the future. It is clearly written, accessible, insightful and perhaps even a profound analysis of the 20th Century. 

To help us visualize the impact of the 20th Century on human culture Higgs uses a key, the concept of Omphalos. “An omphalos is the centre of the world or, more accurately, what was culturally thought to be the centre of the world.” (p.15) Another way to think about the Omphalos is as the ‘axis mundi’ - the world pillar that was the link between heaven and earth. With this concept Higgs is able to provide us with a rich account of how the 20th Century has radically ‘uncentered’ domain after domain of human thought and experience.

Much of the discussion about the future focuses on technology with some consideration of ethical and social implications. There are some attempts to explore the transformation of culture, psycho-socio experience and the concepts of identity - but most often the visions of future technology are simply overlaid on current - cultural constructs - with the exception of privacy.

In 1950 there were about 2.5 billion humans alive - that this means is there is hardly anyone alive today whose legacy of experiences refers to the world before the 20th Century’s marvel of techno-social change. The implementation of technologies such as universal electrification, households filled with appliances, ubiquitous tele-communication, refrigeration, plumbing, healthcare, the automobile and more - these we have taken in our stride. And in this way, it becomes clear why Alan Kay’s definition of technology as ‘everything that is invented after we are born’ is so salient.

More fundamentally, Higgs’ approach maps out the deeper layers - the more mythic cultural frames that have been displaced. Humans are biologically identical to those of the 19th Century - but a vast transformation of the psychological-cultural space in which we live has transpired over the several generations that have lived through the 20th Century.

A typical person alive in 1899 and transported to 2016 would not just suffer a shock from the technologies we take for granted - but would suffer a deeper sort of psychological vertigo from the loss of the ‘centers’ of the world that had held up both the pre-modern ‘God-given’ world and the modern ‘Clockwork universe’ (the simple transmutation of ‘God’ into machine-like natural laws). 

The shock of traveling on the first trains at 20 mph incited a claim that this experience would literally drive people ‘crazy’ - and I’m sure if the concept of PTSD were alive then there would have been cases of such speed induced PTSD. 

Higgs argues that the ‘ground’ of the Victorian world’s ‘natural order’ was held by the ‘figure’ of the four solid axis mundi of Monarchy, Church, Empire and Newton. The certainty of this world was echoed by Lord Kelvin in 1900 “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.’

A journey through the 20th Century can seem like an epic quest. The gallant adventurers who embark on the first wrestle with three giants, known by single names of Einstein, Freud, and Joyce. The must pass through the forest of quantum indeterminacy and the castle of conceptual art. The avoid the gorgons of Jean-Paul Sartre and Ayn Rand whose glance can turn them to stone, emotionally if not physically, and they must solve the riddles of the Sphinxes of Carl Jung and Timothy Leary. Then things get difficult. The final challenge is to somehow make it through the swamp of postmodernism. It is not, if we are honest, an appealing journey. P.6

The territory of the 20th Century includes the dark patches of thick, deep woods. The established paths tend to skirt around these areas, visiting briefly but quickly scurrying on as if fearful of becoming entangled. These are area such as relativity, cubism, the Somme, quantum mechanics, the id, existentialism, Stalin, psychedelics, chaos mathematics and climate change. p.9

Higgs adds an exclamation point by quoting Sir Arthur Eddington - ‘the universe would prove to be not just stranger than we imagine but stranger than we can imagine.’ This is a fundamental realization - one that bloomed throughout the 20th Century and is at the heart of the 21st Century.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
H.P. Lovecraft

Higgs begins by discussing the first ‘center-axis of the world’ that is dissolved as a consequence of Einstein and relativity and firmly establishing that there can be no ‘objective frame of reference’ for either perceiving the world or understanding it. Einstein’s framework produced the first fundamental crack in belief that certainty was achievable. This was the first blow against the God-Given world and its proxy of the clockwork world. We must remember that there was no fundamental conflict between early science and religion. The conflict was between the scholastic approach that relied on scriptures for truth of the world - versus learning God’s truth from his original book of nature.

Although a century has passed since Einstein destroyed the ‘objective frame of reference’ and proposed that space and time were really a unity of space-time socio-cultural frameworks still haven’t come close to integrating that realization within daily life. It is curiously hard to grasp how many of the pillars supporting our world have been shattered in the 20th century. For example some basic science breakthroughs that shatter the concept of a clockwork universe include:

  • Einstein - that there is no objective frame of reference,
  • Godel - the fundamental incompleteness of systems of formal logic,
  • Quantum Mechanics’ - uncertainty principle and entanglement,
  • Turing's stopping problem,
  • Chaos - the fundamental unpredictability of deterministic systems due to sensitivity to initial conditions,
  • Freud, Jung and many others revealing the unconscious determinants of behavior – more recent cognitive & social science such as George Lakoff, Kahneman and Tversky and many others, demolishing the notion of the ‘rational actor’
  • The displacement of a ‘physics worldview’ by biology-complexity science framework including the unpredictability of emergent properties
Even the concept of evolution is evolving - among numerous possibilities one recent article in Nautil.us by Philip Ball discusses some of the work in this area:

What Wagner is talking about is how evolution innovates: as he puts it, “how the living world creates.” Natural selection supplies an incredibly powerful way of pruning variation into effective solutions to the challenges of the environment. But it can’t explain where all that variation came from. As the biologist Hugo de Vries wrote in 1905, “natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest.” Over the past several years, Wagner and a handful of others have been starting to understand the origins of evolutionary innovation. Thanks to their findings so far, we can now see not only how Darwinian evolution works but why it works: what makes it possible.

The Strange Inevitability of Evolution

Good solutions to biology’s problems are astonishingly plentiful.


While many people have some familiarity with the developments in science, Higgs also covers in some detail the correlated developments in the domains where artists have engaged in ‘persistent attempts to destroy frames of reference’. The early examples include cubism in painting & painters such as Picasso, Braque, Dali, Kandinsky, Gauguin, others; musicians such Schoenberg, Stravinsky, others, and writers such as TS. Eliot, Ezra Pound and especially James Joyce. The list is much much longer. 

He also links the intellectual demands to grasp the emerging world of individualism the early modern spiritualist like George Gurdjieff, Aleister Crowley (Do what thou wilt - Is the whole of the Law), Blavatsky, and literary philosophers such Ayn Rand, and many others. Essentially Higgs correlates the artistic birthing of individualism.

But it wasn’t only art - the 20th century also began with Freud and Jung shattering the idea of a conscious self that has complete rational control. The decentering of the ‘rational self’ has continued despite a number of detours and the entrenchment of neo-liberal economic concepts. The work begun by early psychology has continued with a number of cognitive and behavioral scientists - including leading scientist such as Nobel Laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman. There are many others worthy of note including the work of George Lakoff who has established the fundamental role that metaphors, frames, and narratives play in structuring how humans reason. All of these scientists have established that human decisions are far from the control and direction of rational will. Humans are much less rational then they are rationalizing. 

We need others, it turns out, in order to develop to the point where we’re able to convince ourselves that we don’t need others.

Neuroscientists have come to view our sense of ‘self’, the idea that we are a single entity making rational decisions, as no more than a quirk of the mind. Brain-scanning experiments have shown that the mental processes that lead to an action, such as deciding to press a button, occur a significant period before the conscious brain believes it makes the decision to press the button. This does not indicate a rational individual exercising free will. It portrays the conscious mind as more of a spin doctor than a decision maker, rationalizing the actions of the unconscious mind after the fact. As the Canadian-British psychologist Bruce Hood writes, ‘Our brain creates the experience of our self as a model - a cohesive, integrated character - to make sense of the multitude of experiences that assault our senses throughout our lifetime.’  p.309

Higgs has chapters on Uncertainty, Science Fiction, Space and Nihilism linking them in a compelling argument that these are all inter-related in our culture. Toward the end of the book he explores in separate chapters the domains of Sex and Teenagers and the massive experimentational generations who use art, music and drugs in ways unprecedented. He discusses the transformation sex as an object of cultural and individual liberation, of research, of a force used by marketing and rise of youth cohorts as both consumer markets and drivers of cultural and technological change.

The last chapter culminates the book with a focus on Networks and a planet of individuals. Essentially networks (and the digital environment emerging from them) decenter, dissolve, disrupt the hierarchy as the final pillar of social organization.

The network has not just reorganized the flow of information around our society. It has imposed feedback loops into our culture. If what we do causes suffering, anger or repulsion, we will hear about it. Where once we regulated our behavior out of fear of punishment by our Lord and master, now we adjust our actions in response to the buzzing cloud of verbal judgments from thousands of people. p.306

In the hierarchical kingdoms cultures of corruption accrete because the flow of information and knowledge is filtered - reducing complexity, to complication, to the simple and finally to the simplistic in order for the top layers to manage ever larger spans of interdependencies. The paradox of the network as exemplified by the Internet is that attempts to control the increasing torrent of information flow become exposed by the inherent transparency of the network itself. The very efficiency that the network enhances is biased by necessity (else one loses the efficiency) of transparency.

Any attempts to disguise these actions and impose secrecy within an organization affect that organization’s internal flow of information. This makes it less efficient, and therefore damages it. The wave of transparency will not be easily avoided. p.307

In the words of the American social physicist Alex Pentland, ‘It is time that we dropped the fiction of individuals as the unit of rationality, and recognized that our rationality is largely determined by the surrounding social fabric. Instead of being actors in markets, we are collaborators in determining the public good. p.308

Individualism trains us to think of ourselves as isolated, self-willed units. That description is not sufficient, either biologically, socially, psychologically, emotionally or culturally.

This digital generation, born after 1990, have grown up in a form of communal panopticon. It has altered them in ways that their parents don’t always appreciate. The older generation can view the craze for ‘selfies,’ for example, as a form of narcissism. Yet those self-portraits are not just attempts to reinforce a personal concept of the individual self. They exist to be observed and, in doing so, to strengthen connections in the network. The culture of the ‘selfie’ may seem to be about twentieth-century individualism, but only when seen through twentieth-century eyes. Those photographs only become meaningful when shared. p.310-11

The millennial generation are now competing with the entire planet in order to gain the power that the attention of others grants. But they understand that the most effective way to get on in such an environment is to cooperate. This generation has intuitively internalized the lesson of game theory in a way that the people of the 1980s never did. They have a far greater understanding of consequence, and connections, than their grandparents. They understand the feedback loops that corporations are still not beholden to. p.311

The 20th century did institute one new pillar - the domain of finance has become the central feature of global economic functioning However, centralize fiat currency may be peaking in the early 21st century with the advent of distributed ledger technologies. What Wittgenstein noted of language - that words only have meaning in the context of other words - now in the world of networks and the digital environment becomes a ubiquitous paradigm:

Legitimacy is something that needs to be justified in the networked world.

In the postmodern world, things made sense of themselves in isolation. In a network, things have context. Multiple perspectives are navigable and practical. This is the age of realpolitik individualism. System behavior is altered by changes of scale, as we have noted, and nowhere is that truer than with network growth.
If they were the same as the individuals of the twentieth century, then there would be little reason for hope, But they are not. As we can see from the bewildered way in which they shrug off the older generation’s horror at the loss of privacy, the digital native generation do not see themselves using just the straitjacket of individualism. -p.314

The network is a beheaded deity. It is a communion. There is no need for an omphalos any more. -p.315

Many people think of pre-modern, modern, and the postmodern as historical periods. Perhaps they are - but more saliently and most curiously is that are also ways of being in the world - states of being that exist almost simultaneously - the ardent atheist can in moments of despair silently cry 'God help me', we all of us point to the Sun going down (rather than look how the earth is turning), we count on a clockwork universe as a source of secure prediction. Post-modern in our capacity to assemble our aesthetics across history & cultures - absorb the aliens of the past and imaginable futures.

Are we near a tipping point? - a curious change in the conditions of change? One that is even deeper – broader – more fundamental than the beginning of the 20th Century?

The network also brings apparently unprecedented level of surveillance as well as sousveillance or co-veillance (bottom-up surveillance). It also brings unprecedented levels of collective choice and sharing of personal-community experience. The network has enabled a vast collective spectacle and self-organized action. This also creates of vastly pervasive permeable and transient identity - sense of self integrated within a dynamic, shape-shifting ecology of being.

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow creates a concept of a ‘law of human existence - related to ‘personal density’ which is directly proportional to ‘temporal bandwidth’ - What he meant was that the sense of substantive self is related to the ‘width’ of one’s sense of presence - the width of one’s ‘now’. While Pynchon related this to the span-thickness of past-to-future - the network includes the span of one’s geographic space. 

Thus the wider in time-space one’s dwelling the more dense one is and the greater one’s bandwidth. Paradox of time-space-self. The converse is the narrower one’s time-space is the more tenuous one’s being is. Reducing one’s involvement with the past and future is inevitably a diminishment of self as a more tenuous sense of being. 

Every technological change that seems to threaten the integrity of the self also offers new ways to strengthen it. Plato warned about the act of writing—as Johannes Trithemius in the fifteenth century warned about printing—that it would shift memory and knowledge from the inward soul to mere outward markings. Yet the words preserved by writing and printing revealed psychological depths that had once seemed inaccessible, created new understandings of moral and intellectual life, and opened new freedoms of personal choice. Two centuries after Gutenberg, Rembrandt painted an old woman reading, her face illuminated by light shining from the Bible in her hands. Substitute a screen for the book, and that symbolic image is now literally accurate. But in the twenty-first century, as in Rembrandt’s seventeenth, the illumination we receive depends on the words we choose to read and the ways we choose to read them.

In the Depths of the Digital Age


Since the onset of the 21st century new concepts to describe the ‘self’ are arising, these include the integrational paradoxes of ‘responsible autonomy’ or ‘networked individualism’. Although Higgs doesn’t refer to him, McLuhan was pointing this out to us early in the second half of the 20th Century.

The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems, which I spoke of earlier, are immersing us in a world-pool of information movement and are thus enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves as well as with one another. But the instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences.

Our whole cultural habitat, which we once viewed as a mere container of people, is being transformed by these media and by space satellites into a living organism, itself contained within a new macrocosm or connubium of a supraterrestrial nature. The day of the individualist, of privacy, of fragmented or “applied” knowledge, of “points of view” and specialist goals is being replaced by the overall awareness of a mosaic world in which space and time are overcome by television, jets and computers — a simultaneous, “all-at-once” world in which everything resonates with everything else as in a total electrical field, a world in which energy is generated and perceived not by the traditional connections that create linear, causative thought processes, but by the intervals, or gaps, which Linus Pauling grasps as the languages of cells, and which create synaesthetic discontinuous integral consciousness.

We confront a basic paradox whenever we discuss personal freedom in literate and tribal cultures. Literate mechanical society separated the individual from the group in space, engendering privacy; in thought, engendering point of view; and in work, engendering specialism — thus forging all the values associated with individualism. But at the same time, print technology has homogenized man, creating mass militarism, mass mind and mass uniformity; print gave man private habits of individualism and a public role of absolute conformity. 

That is why the young today welcome their retribalization, however dimly they perceive it, as a release from the uniformity, alienation and dehumanization of literate society. Print centralizes socially and fragments psychically, whereas the electric media bring man together in a tribal village that is a rich and creative mix, where there is actually more room for creative diversity than within the homogenized mass urban society of Western man.

I’m not claiming that freedom will be absolute — merely that it will be less restricted than your question implies. The world tribe will be essentially conservative, it’s true, like all iconic and inclusive societies; a mythic environment lives beyond time and space and thus generates little radical social change. All technology becomes part of a shared ritual that the tribe desperately strives to keep stabilized and permanent; by its very nature, an oral-tribal society — such as Pharaonic Egypt — is far more stable and enduring than any fragmented visual society. The oral and auditory tribal society is patterned by acoustic space, a total and simultaneous field of relations alien to the visual world, in which points of view and goals make social change an inevitable and constant by product. An electrically imploded tribal society discards the linear forward-motion of “progress.” We can see in our own time how, as we begin to react in depth to the challenges of the global village, we all become reactionaries.

Unfortunately, no society in history has ever known enough about the forces that shape and transform it to take action to control and direct new technologies as they extend and transform man. But today, change proceeds so instantaneously through the new media that it may be possible to institute a global education program that will enable us to seize the reins of our destiny — but to do this we must first recognize the kind of therapy that’s needed for the effects of the new media. In such an effort, indignation against those who perceive the nature of those effects is no substitute for awareness and insight.

The new technological environments generate the most pain among those least prepared to alter their old value structures. The literati find the new electronic environment far more threatening than do those less committed to literacy as a way of life. When an individual or social group feels that its whole identity is jeopardized by social or psychic change, its natural reaction is to lash out in defensive fury. But for all their lamentations, the revolution has already taken place.

Marshall McLuhan - The Playboy Interview


This review hasn’t really done justice to this book and its journeys through the history of the 20th century. It is not a linear chronological elaboration of events or characters. It is however, a wonderful elaboration of the destructions of pillars that have held up the framework of the Western world. It exposes or suggests indications of the emerging mycelium of a new 21st Century framework - one that unsettles most of us. 

The zeitgeist of 21st century is more than the millennialism - it is a sense of looming imminence, for example - the end-of-times-rapture, nuclear armageddon, climate change, the singularity of the rise of artificial intelligence and the complete transformation of human social fabric, the potential emergence of humanity 2.0 or a sense of ubiquitous uncertainty.

We are confronted in the 21st Century with a profound challenge that includes the need to develop new forms of reason. Reasoning that can reach beyond the syllogism, beyond entailing law. But we can’t regress into gut thinking and intuition. We need the development of rigor and imagination - evidence and meaning.

Higgs’ book give us a look at just how deeply our cultural assumptions have been rocked - a preparation to begin to grasp how the trajectory of the 21st century suggests a fundamental transformation of humanity, Higgs lays out is a vitally important perspective providing an initial ground for understanding the rise of a widespread sense of nostalgia (homesickness). A homesickness for a past that never truly was despite the fact that the accelerating pace of change transforms our sense of home before our very eyes.

Nostalgia is a term coined in the 17th century to describe physical symptoms experienced by Swiss mercenaries fighting in foreign lands. The physical symptoms were described as a result of a form of ‘melancholy’. For the Swiss mercenaries the symptoms included fainting, fever, indigestion, intestinal pain and death. Given what we now know about the importance of our microbial profile - these symptoms could have arisen as a result of new food and environments.

The challenge of nostalgia is pervasive - as the topology or our self-environment-geography is transforming within the digital environment into a connectography (see Parag Khanna’s Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization) - a mycelium of networks-of-being-becoming. The 21st Century’s digital environment represents a change in conditions of change - a singularity of connectography - of small worlds - of phase-transformation thresholds in density, flow, and connectedness. Ultimately, the technological dimension is also the cultural dimension - transition humanity toward new states of consciousness - and emerging possibilities of new senses and sensoriums. Not just a radical decentering of the Western mind-culture but a profound challenge of warp-speed future shock to other cultural-minds.

Future focused science is struggling with the paradoxical relationships of the virtual and the actual - the world of ontologically real possibles and their collapse into the world of actuals. The realization that the evolution of the biosphere is beyond efficient causality and requires new forms of understanding that can embrace ‘acausal’ conditions of change including enablement, Darwinian pre-adaptations, affordances, adjacent possibles, and exaptations - the quantum reality of superpositions and entanglement and promiscuous horizontal gene transfer - and of course the consequences of Moore-is-different.

Higgs’ book is not only well worth the read and is well worth a considered conversation. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Enacting Social Fabric –Accounting-as-Ground of a Social-Political-Economy

Steampunk - Spiral - Space Time Continuum iphotograph by Mike Savad
We measure the flow of time objectively in the sequencing of equal increments – whether they are nano-seconds, days, weeks … on and on. But we experience time very differently as subjective intensities of peaks and troughs –of moments that can seem eternal slowing down like in ‘bullet time’ or in profound blurs that can seem like hitting warp drive. 

The dissonance between a linear measure of time and an intensive experience of time can contribute to difficulties of foresight, or to a personal consistency of effort in sustaining a persistent ‘rational’ line of thought. Curiosities can arise enabling new thoughts, new affordances of reason, and rather than a clear trajectory of navigating focused thinking – our reason becomes a wayfinding that seems more like mycelial explorations.

Mycelial Rootworks - Earth Neuron?
A previous post explored how the mycelial, curiosity-driven focus, can very harness the intensities of insight-attention – whether they grasps at a broader rootwork of knowings or a narrower depth of expertise. However, embodied knowing whose depths are not narrow silos but rather are entangled rootworks of knowledge can encompass deeper layers of fertile soil for the generation of new knowledges.

The rootwork systems of thought I have been exploring through this blog, assumes the ever more familiar view that we are in the midst of a profound change in the conditions of change – a change inherent to the emerging the digital environment.

The Age of Anarchy

Thus far, I’ve argued that accounting, is a fundamental technology in co-creating the human experience. It is a technology rooted in our bio-social fabric – for example the image of primates grooming each other can easily be seen as a type of moral-bookkeeping – where either grooming serves to establish relational credit and/or to pay relational debts. This accounting IS the embodiment of the social fabric that establishes the primate troop.

Entangled Accounting
I have also argued that a useful way to understand the Dunbar number was as a social constraints involved in the social computing of a group’s ‘pecking order’ – a social structure that also provided the affordances that enabled the processes for allocation of resources among those in the group. For example a hunter brings home a large animal – group-status structure has already determined who gets what part and in what portions. Keeping this structure of statuses-relationships also requires a constant social computing of the ‘social-relational-exchange accounts’ – which is the establishing of credit-debt exchanges that is the core of social fabric and structures (the virtual ‘grooming’ among members). 

As long as the group was constrained by the boundary conditions of the Dunbar size and simple status-lineage-clan structures, the accounting of all social exchange could be computed through human memory. But this 'attractor' couldn’t scale to larger groups, as humans learned to domesticate plants and animals and began create surpluses, which in turn enabled increases in group size and density. 

The consequence was a significant increase in social complexity, which enabled rapid proliferation of many forms of specialization, divisions of labor, new statuses, increasingly complicated lineages and histories and more. The rise of these more complicated and complex forms of social exchange hovered at the limits of the memory and social computing capacities of hunter-gatherer systems. Thus despite the fact that human were ‘proto-farmers’ for tens of thousands of years – the capacity to shift to agricultural societies had to wait for the development of concrete accounting mechanisms which enabled the external recording of exchanges – these systems also quickly provided the foundation for writing. 

With the rise of writing came a change in the conditions of change – changing the scale of human entangled possibilities, the scope of complexities and the transaction costs for organizing collective human efforts. 

These consideration can lead us to ask "What came first – density or a new form of accounting?" I would argue that accounting and/as administration were co-created, co-determined capabilities that were demanded/enabled by certain critical boundary conditions of population size and density. Support for this framing of thought can be found in David Graeber’s most recent book Bureaucracy.

The Age of Bureaucracy

Double-entry bookkeeping was deployed in its modern form in the 1300s. While minor innovations have occurred since then, the fundamental atomic unit of tracking and managing value–our accounting system–is still based on this 700-year-old invention. With today’s computers, networks, and cryptography, we now have the opportunity to create a system of accounting that brings us into the 21st century–a system that looks beyond numbers in ledgers and utilizes machine learning, multiparty computation, and algorithmic representation to redefine “value.”
So what’s holding us back?

In discussing the rise of ‘the state’ Graeber outlines three key elements that are important principles or constituents – sovereignty, administration and politics. He notes that the historical origins of each element are not only distinct from each other but have no intrinsic relationship other than their capacity to be assembled in a range of entanglements. Of interest to my argument is Graeber’s view on the rise of the element of administration. 
Bureaucracy=Measuring=Control

I would argue that administration (and logistics) is a practical application of accounting (you can't manage what you can't measure) – although in most contexts, administration is never value neutral or without particular biases:

The second principle is administration, which can and often does exist without any single center of power to enforce its decisions. It could also, of course, simply be referred to as bureaucracy. In fact, the most recent archeological evidence from Mesopotamia indicates that bureaucratic techniques emerged not just before sovereign states, but even before the existence of the first cities. They were not invented to manage scale, as ways of organizing societies that became too big for face-to-face interaction. Rather, they seem to have been what encouraged people to assemble in such large communities to begin with. At least, this is what the record seems to show. The standardization of products, storage, certification, record-keeping, redistribution, and accounting all seem to have emerged in small towns along the Tigris and Euphrates and its tributaries in the fifth millennium BCE, a thousand years before the ‘urban revolution”. We don’t really know ow or why; we don’t even know whether there were actual bureaucrats (in the sense of a distinct class of trained officeholders) or whether we are simply talking about the emergence of bureaucratic techniques. But by the time historical records do kick in there certainly are; we find vast temple and palace complexes with a hierarchy of trained scribes carefully registering and allocating resources of every sort.

David Graeber – Utopia of Rules, p.176

It does seem clear that the arise of bureaucracy is a consequence of a change in the conditions of change. To recall what this means, one way to understand a change in conditions of change is that it represents critical changes in a systems boundary conditions. I’ve been arguing that along with population size and density, other fundamental boundary conditions include: transaction, marginal and opportunity costs; environmental niches, providences and rhythms; levels of technology. All of these boundary conditions combine to constrain how human tend to organize. These constraints are the conditions sustaining ‘attractors of efficiency’. I outlined three basic attractors: The attractors shaping human organization during our hunter-gatherer experiences, those shaping human organization with the rise of civilizations and the emergence of industrial society and the attractors that are emergence with the development of the digital environment. 

Hunter-Gatherer Anarchy
If we consider the boundary conditions of hunter-gatherer groups – the attractor of efficiency favored social organizations based on anarchy (as Graeber describes in a number of his works or as Christopher Boehm describes as reverse hierarchy). Anarchy might not seem efficient but in small groups where cohesion and loyalty to the group have high survival value, the ability to impose decisions by the few onto the rest or even by a majority onto a minority, too easily leaves the group vulnerable to dissension and sabotage. The messiness and tedium of anarchic group processes to achieve consensus are actually more efficient in the long terms because consensus reduces dissent, resistance, friction and sabotage (all forms of transaction costs) regarding the practical implementation decisions eventually agreed upon.

The consequences of potential conflicts within the group are transaction cost that outweighed the cost of initial messy group decisioning processes – because such processes produce the benefits of cultural integration and cooperation. The problem is that anarchy couldn’t scale to larger group sizes with increasing diversity and complexity.

Hierarchic Attractor of Efficiency
As I've redundantly noted, the advent of greater population size, density, diversity of occupational niches and other corresponding complexities creates new boundary conditions that at minimum consist of an exponential increase in the transaction costs (as described by Ronald Coase in his theory of transactions costs). These changes drive the emergence of a new attractor of efficiency – one that favors hierarchic and centralized forms of organizations. 

This attractor of efficiency remained relatively stable for thousands of years. However, as larger centers of population began to proliferate, they enabled an acceleration of new technologies, other innovations and ever new combinations of what already existed began to exponentially increase the possible complexities of exchange and trade. These new boundary conditions began to slowly change certain scales of transaction costs. 

Right now, the technology of the financial system is built on top of a way of thinking about money and value that was designed back when all we had were pen and paper, and when reducing the complexity of the web of dependencies and obligations was the only way to make the system functionally efficient. The way we reduce complexity is to use a common method of pricing, put elements into categories, and add them up. This just builds on 700­-year­-old building blocks, trying to make the system “better” by doing very sophisticated analysis of the patterns and information without addressing the underlying problem of a lossy and oversimplified view of the world: a view where everything of “value” should be as quickly as possible recorded as a number.

The emergence of the industrial revolution was also the beginning the emergence of a new attractor of efficiency – that  of self-organizing markets, new institutions including development standardization and the more rapid flows of information (including the price mechanism). The emergence of market systems and democracy represented a change in conditions of change the boundary conditions that stabilized around a new attractor of efficiency.

Transaction Costs
The ever faster information flows accelerated with the birthing of the Internet. It has become well established that the emerging digital environment has increasingly collapsed traditional transaction costs, created conditions of increasing connectedness (which also creates a type of increased population density) and much more. 

This is a deep change in the conditions of change – one that shifts the salient organizational problems toward other costs, including opportunity cost. Opportunity become dramatically more important as other conditions emerge such as marginal cost approaching near-zero (conditions of an abundance economy), non-rival goods become the platforms of creative innovation (e.g. information), and many others. 

If the transaction costs of creating value go down radically, the form and logic of economic entities need to change. The new landscape of work is alien territory for most of today’s business leaders and business schools, but things are already moving towards a new world. The new topography consists of the network as the architecture of work and work as coordinated, contextual problem solving between non-co-located but interdependent people.

Four fairly new insights are challenging our traditional beliefs:
  1. Value creation happens at the point of use, not the point of production;
  2. Mass solutions are not as competitive as contextual solutions;
  3. Transactions are replaced by interactions because contextual value creation cannot take place without interaction;
  4. Open networks and reach and richness of networking are more valuable than control of proprietary assets.

The Age of Entanglement

Entangled Planet
In the digital environment’s new attractor of efficiency, our entanglement with things, people, data-information, embodied knowledge and thinking systems, will or can become ubiquitously transparent in the immediacy of any and all  moments. Our digital trails will become visible histories in unforeseeable ways - no matter our efforts. As McLuhan noted the computer (the one computer that is the emerging ubiquitous cloud which we are now beginning to inhabit) makes our history present in the moment. 

The atmosphere of the digital environment will enable unimaginable visualization of information, unimaginable forms of analysis, unimaginable personalized service-products, unimaginable emergent opportunities – which we will enact with expectations of dynamic, immediate customization – just as we now expect to be able to search for an answer to any question we can dream up. 

Objects will have their histories available for anyone to query. Within conditions such as these, the boundaries between, history, relationships, reputation, information, currency and accounting dissolve. 

We are now being challenged to more deeply re-imagine a political-social-economy relevant to new types of ‘value’ – value that is non-rival, abundant, intangible and subject to increasing returns.

Let’s give ourselves some permission to imagine some possibles.
The Social Self Ecology

"Perhaps I didn't live just in myself, perhaps I lived the lives of others…My life is a life put together from all those lives: the lives of the poet."
Pablo Neruda – Memoirs, p1

In the inaugural issue of the Journal of Design and Science, has two great articles heralding the rise of the Age of Entanglement. The introductory article by Neri Oxman and a wonderful, eloquent account by Danny Hillis, “The Enlightenment is Dead, Long Live the Entanglement”. 

It is worth including a substantive quote:
We are at the dawn of the Age of Entanglement.In the last age, the Age of Enlightenment, we learned that nature followed laws. By understanding these laws, we could predict and manipulate. We invented science. We learned to break the code of nature and thus empowered, we began to shape the world in the pursuit of our own happiness. We granted ourselves god-like powers: to fly, to communicate across vast distances, to hold frozen moments of sight and sound, to transmute elements, to create new plants and animals. We created new worlds entirely from our imagination. Even Time we harnessed. The same laws that allowed us to explain the motions of the planets, enabled us to build the pendulum of a mechanical clock. Thus time itself, once generated by the rhythms of our bodies and the rhythms of the heavens, was redefined by the rhythms of our own machines. With our newfound knowledge of natural laws we orchestrated fantastic chains of causes and effect in our political, legal, and economic systems as well as in our machines. Our philosophies neatly separated man and nature, mind and matter, cause and effect. We learned to control. Eventually, in the ultimate expression of our Enlightenment exuberance, we constructed digital computers, the very embodiments of cause and effect. Computers are the cathedrals of the Enlightenment, the ultimate expression of logical deterministic control. Through them, we learned to manipulate knowledge, the currency of the Enlightenment, beyond the capacity of our own minds. We constructed new realities. We built complex algorithms with unpredictable behavior. Thus, within this monument to Enlightenment thinking, we sowed the seeds of its demise. We began to build systems with emergent behaviors that were beyond our own understanding, creating the first crack in the foundation. So what is this brave new world that we are creating, governed neither by the mysteries of nature or the logic of science, but by the magic of their entanglement? It is governed by the mathematics of strange attractors. Its geometry is fractal. Its music is improvisational and generative rather than composed … progress in the Age of Entanglement is synthetic and comes from putting things together


The enlightenment, the industrial revolution and ideology of neo-classical economics of the 20th century have all been dominated by a particular concept of individuality – that of an isolated, atomistic, rationally selfish concept of ‘self’. The counter-narrative, as I’ve been arguing for, is one of the ‘social self’ – arising in a context of entangled, mycelial-like ecology. Humans became humans with the invention of language and culture which are inextricably social and socially constructed - even if they are also co-constructed within particular physical environments.

In another wonderful paper, this one by Edwin Hutchins, “The role of cultural practices in the emergence of modern human intelligence”, Hutchins elaborates the conception of embodied mind that deepens the conceptualization of thinking I’ve been exploring. He argues that the best way to conceive the human cognitive system is to understand it as a distributed system transcending the boundaries of body and brain. Thus the condition of human entanglement is one of an embodied and inclusive system – of objects, patterns, events, ecologies and other beings that is the locations where cognition occurs. 

Aba-Novák Blind Musicians 1932

As outrageous as this may sound I was first introduced to such a concept by Gregory Bateson:

“Suppose I am a blind man, and I use a stick. I go tap, tap, tap. Where do I start? Is my mental system bounded at the handle of the stick? Is it bounded by my skin? Does it start halfway up the stick? Does it start at the tip of the stick? But these are nonsense questions. The stick is a pathway along which transforms of difference are being transmitted. The way to delineate the system is to draw the limiting line in such a way that you do not cut any of these pathways in ways which leave things inexplicable. If what you are trying to explain is a given piece of behavior, such as the locomotion of the blind man, then, for this purpose, you will need the street, the stick, the man; the street, the stick, and so on, round and round.”
Gregory Bateson – Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1972, 459 

For Hutchins, approaching the study of cognitive outcomes as properties of a distributed cognitive system, provides for a more comprehensive understanding of what cognition really is, than current assumption that cognition is solely the consequence of properties of each individual participating in the distributed system:

High-level cognitive outcomes emerge from the orchestration of the elements of distributed cognitive systems by cultural practices.

The claim here is that, first and foremost, thinking is interactions of brain and body with the world. Those interactions are not evidence of, or reflections of, underlying thought processes. They are instead the thinking processes themselves.
Improvisation as Thinking
Hutchins considers that biological evolution did not precede the capacity for language and culture – but that biology co-developed with language and culture – that humans shaped tools and tools shaped humans. For Hutchins it is cultural practices-in-environments that both ground and enable thought processes.

A practice will be labelled cultural if it exists in a cognitive ecology such that it is constrained by or coordinated with the practices of other persons.

Thus all forms of language arise and are produced by-in-for cultural practices – and fluency in both culture and language requires a deep collective tacit knowledge – as Harry Collins has noted. 

In this way, Hutchins notes that thinking, for-as-within speaking, suggests that even low-level perceptual processes are often organized by cultural practices. Cultural practices include particular ways of seeing (or hearing, or feeling, or smelling) the world. Thus cultural practices also involve the orchestrating of sensing.

The engagement of the brain and body with the social and material world through the performance of cultural practices accomplishes several important functions at once. It is the principal, and perhaps the only, means of producing high-level cognitive processes. The enactment of embodied, non-symbolic representations, through which phenomena are seen as instances of culturally meaningful events and objects, is a cultural practice, not a passive innate process.

Improvisation as Practice
The dominant explanatory logic for cognitive science is to reduce cognition to neural correlates within a single brain. Although it is the dominant logic, that doesn’t mean it’s uncontested. The issue is that this dominant logic, is also deeply embedded in current scientific-cultural practice. A practice that wants us to imagine an abstract, generally disembodied, cognitive process or ability and then tries to imagine how the brain could do it. But this is a mistake, because the answer sought depends on how the question was framed. This framing is also deeply imbued in the currently dominant economic paradigm.

What all of these ‘dots’ suggest (to me at least), is that our entanglement is more than a form of interdependence, more than embeddedness in mycelial rootworks that form the structures, processes, histories and veneers of our societies. Our entanglements within these structures, processes, and objects (including the smart-things of the Internet-of-Things) represent collective intelligence, knowledge, data, memories and most importantly – they enact forms of computation and actual thinking arising from a social self(s).

Collaboration - Social Currency
Considering the argument thus far, I believe we have to also re-think, more deeply re-imagine, currency – as a ubiquitous form of accounting system that is also the embodiment of social fabric and imbued in all our enacted cultural practices, memory and social thinking. 

The looming emergence of ‘smart money’ –currency that is more than information with meta-data but is a form of intelligent algorithm or AI – will enable visualized capturing of histories, trajectories, transactional lineages – creating a sense of distributed realism. And as a consequence, we need to begin to provide a more adequate framework for understanding all the looming implications of our entanglement within the ecologies of the digital environment, the Internet-of-things, the blockchain, big data, and more.

Our future social-political-economies will have to embrace a reality that is not only approaching a near zero marginal cost society, but where the predominant forms of value creation will be antithetical to scarcity and will be deeply non-rival. One of the most important economic and social aspects of our future will be to focus on reducing opportunity costs – those involved with generating and seizing opportunity. Our future – economic, social, environmental – will depend on our capacity to scale learning and enable a creative, generative capacity in all we do.

Today, we have the technology and the computational power to create a system of accounts that could retain and deal with a lot of the complexity that the current system was designed to avoid. There is, for example, no reason that every entry in our books needs to be a number. Each cell could be an algorithmic representation of the obligations and dependencies that it represents. In fact, using machine learning, accounts could become sophisticated probabilistic models for what might happen depending on how things around them change. This would mean that the “value” of any system would change depending on who was asking, their location, and the time parameters.

I will continue to explore these ideas in my next post.