Are we really all Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace?
Creating better futures can’t be reduced to solving the world’s problems with the same type of thinking and behavior that created breakdowns in the first place - to paraphrase Einstein like everyone does these days... What we are now seeing is a startlingly rapid growth in the complexity and intricacy of the problematiques facing us – manifestations of interconnected dysfunctionality caught up in meta-systems - which old school types of thinking and action and even systems thinking are incapable of tackling. No matter if we are hoping for the whole system to be modeled and redesigned by ‘those who know better’ or whether we expect some natural order to replace old hierarchies and man-made chaos – or even if we’re waiting for Gaia to exact her revenge and destroy humanity, many of us feel powerless, helpless or doomed. The forces that impel us toward fulfilling our rational self-interest and our immediate selfish desires, or that were meant to liberate us from all forms of political and religious servitude, have led to our surrender to “The System”.
Adam Curtis explores this topic in ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’, a powerful and unsettling three part documentary broadcast in June this year by the BBC. He identifies three key strands of thought that have helped shape the 20th century ethos. Briefly put, these are that:
- market stability enabled by technology will liberate us from all forms of political control and help us become Randian heroes in control of our own destinies;
- old hierarchies will be replaced by (eco)systems that can organize themselves ‘naturally’;
- we are all soft machines driven by the impulses of our genes and therefore not responsible for the unforeseen consequences of our acts.
Such ideas have caused us to embrace a fatalistic philosophy that sees human beings as cogs in a mechanistic system or as computing machines in their own right, helpless and disillusioned in the face of those in power, with no idea of what comes next or of how to challenge and change the status quo. Isn’t this a great excuse for our political failure to change the world?
We are not ants!
But this is not the discourse we want to hear! No, we are not cogs in machines ...we are not ants either. And we are certainly not doomed or pre-determined – or at least it is healthy to presuppose we are not! One of my favorite quotes from Goethe offers an antidote to such deterministic thinking and shows a way forward: “If we take man as he is, we make him worse. But if we take him as what he could potentially be, then we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”
We need to hang on to our belief in mankind and our ability to change the world for the better! As Maturana and Varela point out in their “The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding”, while machine systems or biological organisms restrict the individual creativity of their component parts because these parts exist solely for the organism itself, human social systems, on the contrary, amplify the individual creativity of their component parts because the system exists for these parts. However, we are not selfish components in the system. As components of a social system, we are both a whole (an individual self) and a part (co-determined by our relationships with others and our environment) at one and the same time. In other words, we do not solely exist so that the system can thrive; the human social system exists for the parts to thrive, individually and collectively, in all their vast networks of interactions and relationships. We can only survive and thrive if we uphold both our “wholeness” and our “partness”. This notion of ‘agency in communion’ as Wilber calls it, or allocentric individualism is a leap beyond the polarization of individualism and collectivism that has underpinned 20th century thought and given us the idiocentric objectivism of Ayn Rand, the post WWI collectivist and totalitarian regimes and the communal ideologies of the 1970s.
Agency is our capacity to make choices and act. Our increasing ability to author, connect and share through communication technologies has made it easier to keep our human individuality and interactions independent of the infrastructure and the system – even if we are still to ensure that this remains so. At the same time, our individuality and our interactions are not separately determined. As much as we can influence and even create our social and natural environment through our choices and decisions, we are shaped by what is around us and by our interactions with our peers.
This is how evolution unfolds, and why we have been able to witness some progress in the history of mankind. So even if we can't do much more than anticipate, minimize impact and maximize recovery in the event of natural catastrophes, we can still influence everything that can be affected by our own choices and decisions and by our interactions and relationships.
We need not just sit around, do nothing, and wait for evolution, destiny, god, nature or the invisible hand to take its inevitable course. The fatalist outlook makes the mountain seem so huge that everybody despairs and gives up any attempt to climb it. Yet there are pockets of awareness out there, determination and possibilities to tap into, cracks to slip into and widen to help the world find meaning and purpose and move in the right direction. Great people are around, great things are being done everywhere and every day. They are waiting to be shared and snowballed – and taken together they create tangible transformation.
Opening up a world of possibilities and thrivability
Opening up a world of possibilities and thrivability is what Jean Russell suggested at the opening of Gathering11. She urged us to start looking at and talking about breakthroughs and the thrivable world that is emerging while this old industrial order breaks down. To tell ourselves stories of what actually works, to open up possibilities and co-create something new. We see many things happening at the edge, and we_magazine pays tribute to them. We see a whole generation of Millennials who refuse to embrace the world the way it is and have the determination and courage to change it. Many of us have become aware that things need to change, only we don’t know where to start. Many of us know we are on a treadmill going nowhere fast, but we don’t know how to jump off or indeed where we might land.
Yet there are ways to catalyze and accelerate the emergence of change, to become actors of transformation. For John Hagel, co-author of ‘The Power of Pull’, this can happen in creative spaces, where a critical mass can be achieved, where interaction and flows of tacit knowledge can be leveraged to achieve a greater potential, and where what is created can be used to boost effectiveness. It’s a similar type of phenomenon to what happens in cities where proximity to fringes, diversity and knowledge accelerates opportunities and creates further attractiveness – only it’s amplified because it’s purpose-based. The main idea is to increase the flow of possibilities and the level of consciousness so that each and every one of us can participate in the emergence of new mindsets and ways of operating by circulating ideas or putting them into application. We must refuse to be intimidated by the tyranny of problems and enter the world of possibilities, multiplied by the collision of ideas and our bootstrapped initiatives.
We must make the very best of what we have, map our assets, talents and resources, and see what they can spark. Donnie MacLurcan opened his Gathering11 talk by observing that there were enough talents in the room to save the world. Gunter Pauli, who spoke at the Amplify festival, and his Blue Economy
Foundation have enough projects and inventions under their belts to reforest, power, irrigate and feed the whole world and make it self-sufficient and thrivable. And there are yet many more assets, talents, resources, projects, and inventions to explore, make visible and put to work.
We need to interconnect and connect the dots. We need to channel the sense of common purpose, and accelerate emergence. And we need to inspire by sharing significance and possibilities, to empower by transforming knowledge and possibilities into intention, and to enable through concrete examples and tools that can transform intentions into actions.
The documentaries are not accessible anymore for copyright isues, but this is a trail that has been put together afterwards. Here is also a very interesting radio interview of Adam Curtis where he outlines the message of the documentary: the challenges of self-organization in the context of political power, and the need for inspiration, greater vision and leadership.
This article was written for the Australian edition of We_Magazine in July 2011 after I watched the documentary, and was released in November. The published article and the magazine can be found here.