Ode to self-organization – Part One

What I want to tell you about is self-organization in knowledge work. That will, namely, be the lead theme of the Knowledge Federation 2010 workshop, which I will be facilitating this fall.  But before I do that, I would like to say just a few words about how I think a sustainable course of development might be found and followed.

Please don’t take me wrong – I will not try to predict the future. I only want to outline a plausible scenario. In fact, I am going to argue that my scenario is not probable. My reason for doing all this is to point at some factors that hinder any such scenario from becoming reality. We will then be able to see how our chances might be increased by doing something with the way we handle knowledge and ideas.

I will describe my scenario as if it has already happened. My story will be only fiction, but it will point at something real.  So here it is.

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What eventually led Professor Jane Kelly of U.C. Berkeley’s Social Anthropology Department to her breakthrough ideas were some facts that everyone seemed to know, but nobody seemed to carry to a conclusion. For example that at the beginning of Industrial Revolution 80% of the people in the First World worked in agriculture, while at the end this number was only 5%. Or that for her great-grandmother doing the laundry was a whole-day affair, while for her it was only a matter of pressing a button. For several years Professor Kelly was carefully collecting and systematizing such observations. The reason was that she felt that this data would reveal a large discrepancy. Kelly was aware that the promise that industrialization would bring us freedom from labor had only been partly fulfilled. Or rather, as she later recounted in an interview, what attracted her attention to this theme was that everyone around her seemed just as stressed and busy as people ever were.

Kelly and her team even managed to come up with some numbers. Their conservative estimate was that as much as 90% of work time had been saved (various tasks that prior to Industrial Revolution filled people’s day and secured their sustenance could subsequently be completed in less than 10% of the original time).

What happened with all that time that had been saved? Kelly found that a lion’s share was wasted away by ineffective societal structures (her rough estimate was 80%). She found wasteful structures everywhere: in politics, corporate business, banking, healthcare…  She found a host of activities and ways of doing things that had long outlived their purpose. She found a variety of others that never really had a justifiable purpose. Her list was astonishingly long.

Had Kelly stopped at this conclusion, her results probably wouldn’t have amounted to much. Everyone knows that social organization leaves room for improvement. The question is whether improvements can be achieved in any feasible way. Karl Marx, among others, saw the social system as wasteful and thought of a way to improve it, but his proposal didn’t seem to pass the reality tests.

Kelly carried her analysis a significant step further – she looked into the causes that underly the wasteful societal structures, and she managed to reduce them to a single one. She identified this root cause as a certain attitude, which people at that time considered as inevitable and simply normal. She called it ‘Attitude X.’ Attitude X is what a CEO of a corporation exhibits when he serves exclusively the financial interests of his company, or his own career, and disregards all other concerns. And what motivates a politician to aim exclusively at increasing the  power of his party or his country, or his own power. Attitude X might also motivate a research lab director when he’s soliciting funds for his research program. What Professor Kelly found was that various building blocks of the society were not structured as it would suit their normal function in the society, and ultimately the wellbeing of people, but according to a balance of power of a large number of people and groups motivated by Attitude X. She realized that this practice of holding on to an acquired power position had virtually stopped the society from evolving. A result was that everyone was busy spinning the loose wheels of an ill-conceived social mechanism, and producing enormous amounts of waste. Kelly found that if people would simply aim to co-create healthy societal structures, instead of competing based on Attitude X, then everyone would be much better off.  Her calculations revealed an interesting vicious cycle: Had Attitude X not been there, it would have been obviously unnecessary, because everyone, that is, everyone on the planet, would be amply taken care of!

For a while Kelly’s results remained virtually hidden among the articles of the Annals of the Albuquerque Anthropological Society, where they were originally published. But then Professor János Laszlo of the Psycho-Somatic Medicine Lab of the University of Budapest published his book, which attracted the attention of the media and the public to her theme.

Professor Laszlo studied work-related anxiety as a health risk. He found that work-related anxiety was a better predictor of coronary disease than cholesterol and blood pressure combined. He also defined a parameter called de-sensitization, which reflected the loss of a subject’s ability to experience positive emotions such as pleasure, happiness and love. He found that work-related anxiety was a leading cause of de-sensitization. “We must realize that the work environment is not only the place where we earn for living. It is also a place where we live, a significant part of our lives. Our work environment shapes us. It determines how we are, and who we are. […] What good is it to earn more, if in the course of doing that we become unable to enjoy the fruits of our work?” Laszlo too looked at the underlying causes, and he too reduced them to Attitude X (he of course gave it a different name, he called it “What’s-in-it-for-me ethics”). He too identified a vicious cycle – Attitude X was at the same time a cause of work-related anxiety and its psychological consequence (anxious people are more likely to mistrust and to compete).

It was then that the media took up the Attitude X theme and began collecting relevant data. At first this theme seemed attractive because of high popular interest in health risk factors. But there was also a rising interested in societal organization. Unemployment and social insecurity were growing, and so was the awareness of environmental and other risks. People realized that the old recipe of keeping the economy and the jobs alive by producing and spending more was a vicious circle that eventually must break down, and they were looking for an alternative. So the journalists were glad to discover Professor Kelly’s work, and show that Attitude X might be a key to solution.

Once the public interest turned to Attitude X, several researchers contributed other relevant views. One of them was Jan Svenson, a political science professor from the University of Uppsala, who showed in no ambiguous terms that Attitude X was the key factor of non-sustainability.

In this way, finally, Attitude X lost its status as ‘simply normal,’ and followed the pattern earlier set by racism and smoking. Having seen that Attitude X was an issue worth representing, politicians and parties included it in their programs.

But the change of practice turned out to be quite a challenge. Everyone was so used to carrying a fighting stance in public! For years the work on eliminating Attitude X seemed to be taking one step forward and two steps back. But the people persisted. And anyway – what else was there to do? Finally the wave of change began to raise. The new generation, which was brought up with the new set of values, found out that cooperative work was great fun. The work patterns that in Kelly’s time were reserved to some exotic organizations like the Wikimedia and the Open Source Movement gradually became a rule rather than exception. A lot of creative work needed to be done to develop new patterns in business and finance.  But this work was done in the new, cooperative way, and people enjoyed it and engaged in it wholeheartedly.

Creativity blossomed. The Renaissance, which was earlier an epitome of sweeping social change, paled in comparison to what turned out to be possible when the available knowledge and technology were combined with societal self-organization.

Some people now even look back at that period with nostalgia. They see it as the time when the space for creative action was vast, because of the challenges the humanity was facing. But we all, of course, enjoy the peace of mind we now have, and the beautiful place the world has become.

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This was my glimpse of the future, taken from an even more distant point in the future. Did you enjoy it? Did it seem plausible? Or was it only a dream?

As I already said, this dream is unlikely to come true in the way as it was presented. Do you see why? Of course – we scientists rarely conduct and formulate our research in terms that can orient public action; we operate within the interests and the language of a discipline. The journalists rarely search through academic archives for material to report on; they easily find more available sensations. In all, our knowledge work is not structured in a way that would enable us to co-produce a simple key insight like “Attitude X must go.”

In fact, our knowledge work itself is largely governed by Attitude X. And increasingly so! (If you have difficulty seeing this in practice, I recommend the book “Good Work” by Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi and Damon.)

Fortunately, we do not need to wait for a realization of the above scenario to begin to self-organize. We can begin immediately. And we can begin in an area that is capable of fostering comprehensive self-organization, namely in knowledge work.

The title of the Knowledge Federation 2010 Workshop, that will be held in Dubrovnik on October 3 to 6, is “Self-Organizing Collective Mind.” Our intention is to begin to gather a small community of creative knowledge workers, from a variety of fields (academic researchers from relevant disciplines, journalists, publishers, IT developers and others), and invite them to perceive themselves not only as professionals pursuing a career in a specific field or business, but also, and indeed primarily, as parts in a collective mind. We will then invite the participants to begin to self-organize, as it best suits this role.

My motivation for doing this work is not a desire to realize the above dream.  The key principle of knowledge federation is to avoid imposing personal goals on others. My intention is to simply offer a space where self-organization of knowledge work can begin to develop. As I wrote in my Knowledge federation elevator pitches posting, the provided frame will be broad enough to host a variety of goals and purposes, including the commercial ones. As it was the case with our first workshop, this second one may also end up having technical solutions and technology as its main subject of interest.

But I do allow myself to desire one thing – I want us to begin to self-organize.

Not only because I see that as a promising strategy for reversing the unwanted global trends.

And not primarily because I would very much like to work in a corner of the world that is not ruled by Attitude X.

Much of my motivation is inherently academic. I am convinced, namely, that in our quest for knowledge – an undertaking as old as the humankind – we have reached the point where we just have to continue through self-organization.

I will explain this carefully in Part Two.


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