In what way shall we understand and handle the issues that challenge our lives and times? How shall we best take advantage of our key resource—creativity? Knowledge Federation proposes to create a guiding light!
I am grateful to Vibeke Jensen and David Price for reading versions of this text and suggesting improvements.
If you had a chance to glance at the earlier About article of this blog, then you know that the blog was conceived as a puzzle. I challenged you to connect the dots; to comprehend the lager story these stories are part of.
And I gave you these two clues: that the solution, the big picture theme this blog is about, is a larger than life creative opportunity; and that the bus with candle headlights, that metaphorical image that was shown in the blog’s banner, would help you see it.
I am now withdrawing the challenge.
The reason is that the website Knowledge Federation dot Org, which was recently redesigned by Knowledge Federation’s expert design team and thoroughly rewritten, provides the solution. You can now simply read the answer.
I finished editing Knowledge Federation dot Org (sufficiently, for now) on last Christmas Eve, a day before I would leave for my usual yearly meditation retreat in the Suan Mokkh forest monastery in Thailand. (I am also doing fieldwork there. Ven. Ajahn Buddhadasa, the enlightened monk and Buddhism reformer who created Suan Mokkh, is the lead hero of the first book of the Knowledge Federation Trilogy, which I am currently writing. As you might be aware if you’ve read The Garden of Liberation, Ajahn Buddhadasa made a discovery, in which he saw the essence of all religion and an antidote to epidemic materialism. The goal of the book is to federate his insight. The book’s title is “Liberation”; the subtitle is “Religion for the Third Millennium”.)
The day before Christmas Eve I worked around the clock, and around 3:30 AM I realized I was done. The results of a quarter of a century of devoted work, often with constellations of able collaborators, were finally put together, explained and made available to public.
Before I rode to the airport, I emailed the link to the website to some of my VIP academic contacts and friends. They are the people who, I anticipated, might resonate with the cause and be part of its realization.
What do you think were their reactions?
There simply weren’t any!
Between you and me, I wonder if anyone really got it! (I have just created a keyword. It alludes to Douglas Engelbart, who was notorious for telling people “you just don’t get it”. Doug created the interactive and network-interconnected digital media, which are now in common use, as a key step in the pursuit of the larger than life creative opportunity that’s been the theme of this blog. But the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and academics just didn’t get it! Doug’s core insight and the story around it will be federated in the second book of the Knowledge Federation Trilogy. The book will have the title “Systemic Innovation”, and the subtitle “Democracy for the Third Millennium”.)
At Suan Mokkh I showed Knowledge Federation dot Org to Ben, my new friend. Ben used to work in a communication design research lab. “Some interesting ideas you’ve got here,” he commented. “But I believe you should begin by giving an explanation and a summary. You cannot expect that the people will be able to see through to them on their own.” Ben didn’t get it either.
“I did give an explanation,” I thought. “In Knowledge Federation dot Org’s two opening paragraphs.” But I didn’t say this to Ben.
“Knowledge federation is like a joke,” I told him instead. “When you get it, you will laugh. But one shouldn’t spoil a good joke by explaining it upfront.”
So we are back to square one!
I thought my project was completed. I thought I revealed the solution to my puzzle. But instead it’s me who is being puzzled! How shall I understand this lack of understanding? How shall Knowledge Federation federate it’s own meaning and potential?
— I’ll help you connect the dots. I’ll help you unravel the puzzle.
I beg your pardon? Who is speaking out there?
— It’s me, your anonymous reader. I am the one to whom you’ve been addressing these blog posts. I realized it’s your birthday today. So I thought I’d show up here and give you this conversation as a birthday present.
A birthday present? My reader? Is this some kind of a joke?
— No, it’s not. I remembered how Kurt Vonnegut wrote Breakfast of Champions as a birthday present to himself. And how he appeared in the book in person, and conversed with his characters. So I thought I’d do something similar here. Only the other way around. Do you know, by the way, that Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s lead character, considered mirrors to be leaks into another reality?
Yes, I remember that.
— Will you let me help you? You have this convoluted way of writing, you know. You expect way too much of your readers. We don’t have time to delve into your nuances. I looked at Knowledge Federation dot Org, and I didn’t get it either. So why don’t I ask you some questions, and help you clarify your proposal?
Well, thanks! I might really need some help.
If I’ll end up contributing anything worthwhile to this timely cause I’ve undertaken to serve, that will be a result of an uncommon skill I’ve acquired through my academic training: to configure in my mind an intuitive 3D-like image of a complex web of relationships; and to see how the whole thing may be rearranged to work better, or to work at all. It is only with time and effort, after lots and lots of writing and rewriting, that I am able to turn what I see into a linear sequence of words. And then, of course, it is far from granted that my readers will be able to reverse that process, and see what I see.
— I’ll help you explain what you see. But you’ll also need to help me out. Promise that you’ll be blunt. Promise that you won’t hold anything back.
In the spirit of knowledge federation, on Knowledge Federation dot Org we pointed to a larger-than-life creative opportunity, presented evidence to show its feasibility, how exactly this opportunity may be actualized. And we left the conclusions to the reader’s reflection, and to our dialog. But if it takes being blunt to even begin the reflection and the dialog…
So yes, I’ll be as direct as I am able.
— Tell me then – what is presented on Knowledge Federation dot Org?
A model, or technically a prototype, of an approach to knowledge. And to information.
Knowledge Federation is submitting a carefully argued case for developing this approach as an academic field. And as a real-life praxis (informed practice).
— How would you characterize the proposed approach to knowledge?
As the rational approach. Or we may also call it natural, or pragmatic.
It is the approach where information has the purpose to inform us. And where knowledge provides us what we before all need to know.
— Isn’t that what we already have?
No, it’s not. Not even remotely.
So technically or academically speaking, knowledge federation is a new paradigm. Not in a specific field of science, where paradigm changes have been relatively common, but in knowledge work at large.
— What exactly does that mean?
Knowledge Federation dot Org’s first two paragraphs are intended to clarify that. Our proposal is motivated and explained by drafting a parallel between our situation today, and the circumstances at the dawn of the Enlightenment, from which science emerged. Science is a historical example of a general paradigm. We show that our situation today calls for a new general paradigm. And that its consequences may be similarly large.
— How would you define knowledge federation?
The Modernity ideogram, that image of the bus with candle headlights, is a visual definition. Knowledge federation is defined as the solution to the challenge posited by the ideogram – the challenge of creating a guiding light (represented the headlights) to suit our society in rapid change (represented by the bus).
Instead of reifying knowledge federation as a specific collection of methods, we defined it as a role and an open challenge. The idea is to let knowledge federation evolve continuously – to take advantage of new information technology; to reflect the state of the art of the knowledge of knowledge; and to accommodate our society’s changing needs.
— This image seems to be of central importance to you. What message do you expect it to convey?
That something essential is lacking in our handling of information – purpose. The goal of knowledge federation is to adapt our handling of information, and of knowledge, to the purposes that information and knowledge can or must fulfill. Crafting knowledge work to its purposes is a radical alternative to the common practice, where we unwittingly adopt the professions, routines, institutional templates, document formats… we’ve inherited from the past – and assume that they do fulfill those purposes. As the Modernity ideogram might suggest – they don’t!
— Science epitomizes our society’s highest knowledge-work standard. How is knowledge federation related to science?
Knowledge federation complements and extends science – by making it in principle applicable to any theme. And by applying it to those themes and issues that have not yet been illuminated by the light of knowledge and reason.
— Are there still themes and issues that have not been illuminated by knowledge and reason?
They are the 99%…
— A majority?
It will turn out, or I should say it has turned out, that the ways we understand personal and social issues are as a rule out of sync with insights developed in scientific disciplines and in other cultural traditions. If you challenge me to name one that isn’t, I’ll have to pause and think.
— Would you like to name a core issue that is out of sync with available knowledge?
The way we try to take advantage of our key resource – creativity.
— Knowledge federation complements the traditional science by providing what Norbert Wiener called “know-what”?
That before all.
Science has given us tremendously powerful know-how. It has enabled us to harness the forces of nature, by creating technology. Knowledge federation is now needed to provide a reliable direction. To enable us to use our newly acquired powers beneficially and safely.
But there is another, more general way in which knowledge federation complements science, and the traditional approaches to knowledge at large. Our knowledge work has had a tendency to overemphasize production and broadcasting. It’s as if we’ve been exercising only one half of our knowledge work ‘muscles’ – the ones that brings information out, from the author to the public. A result is that our knowledge has become overcrowded, and our attention overtaxed. Knowledge federation develops and exercises the complementary knowledge work ‘muscles’ – the ones that organize and systematize information. So that the way we understand issues may be in sync with relevant more specific insights, which are now divided across scientific disciplines and domains of interest.
The signature theme of knowledge federation is weaving together the basic insights reached in academic fields and other cultural traditions – to create even more basic insights. The ones that can enlighten and orient our core activities and interests.
— May I challenge you to federate the need for this new sort of knowledge. Why do we need it? Why is it that we don’t already have it?
Because the nature of our cultural and social condition has changed.
Sociologists have diagnosed that we are living in a “post-traditional society”, and in “reflexive modernity”. In a tradition, the basic information, what Wiener called “know-what”, is implicit in the myths, mores, taboos and institutions of a cultural tradition. In the reflexive modernity, all those various basic issues in life and culture that the traditional people took for granted become a subject of conscious evaluation or reflection. The term “reflexive modernization” is also a recommendation – that in the “risk society” modernization cannot just continue blindly. That it itself must become a subject of reflection.
Sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman coined the phrase “fluid modernity” to point to a complete meltdown of trust in anything that seemed solid only a generation ago – values, mores, institutions, religion, reality, and the very idea of truth itself. Suddenly everything seems just illusive, just relative.
Our inherited frames of reference and ways of handling information no longer work. New ones need to be created.
— If we’ll apply state of the art technology, and academic insights, to produce the information that will make the contemporary people and society informed – in what ways will that information be different from the information we now have?
The task of knowledge federation as an academic field is to produce, or more accurately to evolve, state-of-the-art answers to that and other related questions. The prototypes presented at Knowledge Federation dot Org constitute an initial, proof of concept answer.
— Those prototypes shows that entirely different information, than what’s presented to us by the media informing, the sciences and other traditional approaches to knowledge work, is now both necessary and possible?
— Why that word, “federation”?
As our logo might suggest, knowledge federation stands for ‘connecting the dots’. Or for what Newton called “standing on the shoulders of giants”.
We adopted that keyword, federation, from political and institutional federation, where smaller units are brought together and given a common identity, and thereby also higher visibility and impact. The task of knowledge federation is to give visibility and impact to knowledge. And to knowledge resources.
Our mission is to work toward an order of things where the way we understand and handle issues reflects our best available knowledge. And where knowledge is created, organized and applied as it may best serve that goal.
— The term knowledge federation applies to all knowledge resources – including documents, methods, media, ideas, institutions and people?
— You use your main keyword in several different ways?
As a verb or verbal noun, knowledge federation refers to the activity I’ve just described. As a noun, it signifies the academic field within which this activity and the corresponding expertise and solutions are developed, communicated and put to use. When capitalized, Knowledge Federation is a real-life prototype of a suitable academic institution.
— Are you proposing knowledge federation as a new academic discipline?
As the dominant institutional template, the academic discipline has contributed to fragmentation of knowledge – which is a core issue that knowledge federation aims to remedy. Therefore the discipline cannot be the solution. Knowledge federation requires, and develops, a new institutional template. We are calling it the transdiscipline.
— How would you describe the transdiscipline?
As a federation of knowledge workers.
Just as the political federation preserves the identity and the autonomy of the participating organizations or states, the transdiscipline lets the participating knowledge workers preserve their disciplinary identity and engagement. In that way they can bring to the transdiscipline the relevant insights from their disciplines. And vice versa – they can bring the challenges that emerge within the transdiscipline to their colleagues’ attention.
— What does a transdiscipline do?
Characteristically, a transdiscipline is organized around a prototype. That may be a systemic solution – for instance for federated education, or for public informing or health. This enables the participating knowledge workers to bring their ideas to impact, by weaving them together into real-life systemic solutions.
The transdiscipline may also be developing and disseminating a transdisciplinary body of knowledge on a theme of contemporary interest – such as online collaboration; or the climate change.
— Knowledge Federation is a prototype transdiscipline?
Yes, it is.
Knowledge Federation develops the transdiscipline by developing itself.
— The traditional academic disciplines have developed their methods and proven their worth through many generations of use, and a record of achievements. Disciplinary rigor is what distinguishes solid academic work from tinkering with ideas. How do you argue the case for knowledge federation as an academic field?
As the second pair of Knowledge Federation dot Org’s paragraphs might suggest, “standing on the shoulders of giants” or knowledge federation is what created science. We show that the need for knowledge federation follows as a logical consequence of the knowledge we own. And that the methods and other design decisions that led to the proposed prototype embody the epistemological and methodological state of the art in science and philosophy.
We show, in other words, that if we would “stand on the shoulders of giants” today, we would see knowledge federation as an emerging creative frontier. We show that knowledge federation is a natural way for the academia to evolve further.
— How would you federate the need for knowledge federation?
Addressing the scientific community from the position a scientific strategist par excellence, in 1945, Vannevar Bush identified what we are calling knowledge federation as the issue the scientists needed to focus on and resolve (see the opening of A Collective Mind – Part One). His call to action, however, remained largely ignored.
In 1990, in this televised interview, Neil Postman described the situation that resulted as follows:
“We’ve entered an age of information glut. And this is something no culture has really faced before. The typical situation is information scarcity. (…) Lack of information can be very dangerous. (…) But at the same time too much information can be dangerous, because it can lead to a situation of meaninglessness, of people not having any basis for knowing what is relevant, what is irrelevant, what is useful, what is not useful, where they live in a culture that is simply committed, through all of its media, to generate tons of information every hour, without categorizing it in any way for you.”
At the time when this interview took place, Tim Berners Lee was writing the code for the World Wide Web. The mass production and broadcasting of information subsequently exploded.
— You are proposing that the academia should develop a methodology for co-creating, organizing and sharing knowledge across disciplines and fields of interest?
Yes, we are. Knowledge Federation dot Org presents a complete prototype of a suitable and academically coherent way to do that.
That prototype is our way to say: “This can be done – and it can be done by conforming to the time-honored standards of the academic tradition.
See what a difference it will make!”
— I am intrigued by what you’ve just said, about the difference that can be made by developing knowledge federation. In its two opening paragraphs, Knowledge Federation dot Org invites its readers to observe that when Galilei was in house arrest, “the problems of the epoch were not resolved by focusing on those problems, but by a slow and steady development of an entirely new approach to knowledge”. Then you ask, rhetorically I believe, whether a similar advent may be in store for us today. Are you offering knowledge federation as an alternative to grappling with problems? Are you proposing a strategy for resolving the contemporary issues?
No, knowledge federation is not an alternative. The climate change, the armed conflicts and their consequences, the Millennium Development Goals and other issues and problems – both personal and global, both large and small – have to be dealt with.
We are proposing to complement the problem-oriented approaches with different thinking. Einstein’s familiar dictum – that we cannot solve our problems by thinking as we did when we created them – is implicit on our every page. Different thinking must be in place to make real and lasting solutions possible.
And different thinking – isn’t that what paradigms are really all about?
— What distinguishes that different thinking, which knowledge federation endeavors to bring to our handling of daily affaires?
Ensuring that the largest and most basic things, such as our institutions or more generally systems, function as they should. Perceiving one’s own work and profession as a functional element in those larger wholes. And adapting what we do, and also how we are to that function, so that those larger wholes can function as they should, and be whole.
— Your case for knowledge federation on Knowledge Federation dot Org is largely structured around an analogy with the advent of the Enlightenment, and the sweeping change that is ready to happen in our time. How do you see the emergence of this new thinking, and the change it’s supposed to bring? What can unleash it?
There is an insight that can unleash such a change, which only needs to be federated.
While developing the Holotopia prototype, which is our current focus, we have simplified our complex reality by talking about five core insights, which follow from the knowledge we own, and which are alone sufficient to ignite the next Enlightenment-like change. The goal of the Holotopia prototype is to choreograph and streamline the transition to the emerging larger societal paradigm, the Enlightenment-like change which is hinted at in Knowledge Federation dot Org’s opening paragraphs.
One of those five insights is called it’s the systems, stupid!
— You are paraphrasing Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign slogan “It’s the economy, stupid”?
We are. We are thereby also pointing to the named insight’s potential to call forth a society-wide “aha”; to appeal to people; and to make a difference.
This migh be a good moment to introduce the five insights the Holotopia prototype is largely based on.
The it’s the systems, stupid insight in this context points to the possibility of two sweeping changes – Industrial Revolution-like improvement of the effectiveness and efficiency of human work, and the social liberty and empowerment that was brought by the advent of the democratic ideals, and institutions.
— How can this new thinking lead to Industrial Revolution-like developments? Why is it necessary for resolving the contemporary issues? Can you give an intuitive explanation?
Imagine our institutions, or more generally “the systems in which we live and work”, as Bela H. Banathy called them, as gigantic mechanisms, comprising people and technology. The function of those mechanisms is to turn our daily work into socially useful effects.
If in spite of all the time we’ve saved by developing technology we might be busier and more stressed than our ancestors were – should we not take a closer look at those systems? Should we not see whether they might be wasting our efforts (see Ode to Self-Organization – Part One)?
And if the results of our best efforts turn out to be problems rather than solutions – should we not take a look at those ‘mechanisms’ that organize us in those efforts? Should we not check if they might be causing us problems (see Toward a Scientific Understanding and Treatment of Problems)?
— You call the way of using our creative powers that manifests this new thinking systemic innovation?
We do – although several other keywords express that same way of thinking, in their own way.
— Knowledge federation is systemic innovation in knowledge work?
That’s what it is, by definition.
— How would you characterize the practical difference that systemic innovation can make?
As the difference between the dollar value of a pair of candles, and the real value of a bus and its passengers.
— In that metaphor, the bus represents our civilization as a whole, with all of us in it?
That’s the interpretation I am referring to. Other interpretations are also possible.
— That metaphorical image suggests that we the people, and our civilization, don’t see where we are headed. That knowledge fedration and systemic innovation are needed to give us control over our destiny. How would you federate that insight?
I would begin by quoting the above assessment of our contemporary global condition by Aurelio Peccei, The Club of Rome’s founding president. In our prototype, Peccei plays the role of a giant who federated the relevant insights and data about our civilization’s present course, and future prospects, by organizing a transdisciplinary research team.
— Depicting our knowledge work as a pair of candles seems implausible. We call our era the Age of Information because our handling of information is what is most advanced; it’s what we are most proud of. How do you explain this discrepancy?
IT innovation too manifests the old thinking. We’ve used the ‘electricity’ to only re-create the ‘candle’.
— While the new information technology enables us to give our society the vision it requires, our old thinking prevents us from doing that? How would you federate that claim?
I would do that by federating Doug Engelbart’s core insight – as he shared it in the above slide. The slide was intended to be the first slide in his “A Call to Action” presentation at Google, in 2007. It renders Doug’s message to the world in a nutshell.
— How do you know that his different thinking is the same as the one the bus with candle headlights is pointing to?
Doug’s second slide made that clear.
— The advent of electricity enabled people to create light based on entirely different physical principles, compared to fire. The analogy you are developing suggests that there’s a principle of operation that is immanent in the new information technology, which could enable a fundamentally different knowledge work. Is there such a principle?
Yes, there is. We are calling it collective mind. It’s the second of the five insights that the Holotopia prototype is presently working with.
The collective mind insight can easily be understood by analogy with Gutenberg’s printing press – which of course played a central role in the development of the Enlightenment, by making a quantum leap in the evolution of knowledge possible. Engelbart’s insight – which has not yet been widely understood – is leading us to a similar quantum leap.
Engelbart pointed to it in his third slide of his A Call to Action presentation at Google. Doug called his insight it CoDIAK for “concurrent development, integration and application of knowledge”. In the above slide this idea is introduced in the second paragraph as “a super new nervous system to upgrade our collective social organisms”.
When each of us is equipped with an interactive interface to a computer, and when our computers are connected into a network (which is the technology that Engelbart and his team developed, and showed in their famous 1968 demo) – then we can communicate and collaborate exactly as the cells in an organism do, when connected together by a nervous system.
Unlike the printing press, which enabled large-scale broadcasting, the new technology enables us to think together, as the cells in a human mind do. You may have a half-cooked idea, and if you make it available online in a suitable way, someone else may complete it to a solution. The new media enable us to develop completely new social processes in knowledge work, which may remind of how the cells in a well-functioning human mind operate together.
— This “super new nervous system” is intended “to improve the collective IQ of our various organizations”? What exactly does that mean?
Doug undertook to explain his vision by using the keyword “collective IQ” or “collective intelligence”, which has been interpreted by different people in different ways. He, however, gave that keyword a technical meaning; he defined it as our collective capability to cope with “complexity times urgency” of our problems, which he saw as growing at an accelerated rate, or “exponentially”.
— How does the new media technology enable a dramatic improvement of our capability to respond to “complexity times urgency”?
Imagine that you are walking, lost in thoughts, perhaps listening to some music on your headphones, and that you suddenly notice that you’ve stopped. As your attention returns to here and now, you realize that you are standing within a meter’s distance from a wall.
Some quite sophisticated data processing has brought you to a standstill – even without your awareness. Your ears were hearing sounds, your nose was sensing smells, and yet out a mishmash of sensory data and thoughts, the correct action emerged.
Imagine how differently this would have ended, if all your cells were using your nervous system to only broadcast data!
Imagine how different your life would be, if your eyes were trying to communicate to your brain by publishing research articles in some specialized field of science!
— By using the new technology to re-implement the processes that the printing press made possible, we ended up ignoring the true advantage of the new media? By using the “super new nervous system” to only broadcast data, we missed the opportunity to “improve the collective IQ of our various organizations”? We ended up boosting our collective insanity instead?
One may well say that.
— What do you see as the way out? What do you propose we should do?
Our civilization is like an organism that has been growing beyond measure, or exponentially. This creature is uncoordinated, and driven largely by primitive, limbic impulses, which make it a danger to its environment and to itself. But by a strike of evolutionary good fortune, the creature has recently acquired a nervous system, which could enable it to think, and to coordinate its actions.
— Provided, of course, it learns how to use it?
It is. Knowledge federation is proposed as the evolutionary organ to the academia – needed to enable the academia to take its natural leadership role in the larger societal re-evolution.
By making this proposal we are echoing – and also operationalizing – the call to action that Erich Jantsch issued fifty years ago.
— You mentioned that you are working on a book titled “Systemic Innovation” and subtitled “Democracy for the third Millennium”, where Doug Engelbart and Erich Jantsch have lead roles. How are systemic innovation and democracy related to each other?
In the book, that question is answered by federating stories or vignettes about those and some other giants – Norbert Wiener to begin with. His story is woven around his seminal 1948 book “Cybernetics”. The word “cybernetics” is coined from the Greek word kubernan, which means to govern or to steer. The word “democracy” is derived by combining Greek words demos, which means “people”, and kratein, which means “to rule”.
So right away we can see an opportunity for knowledge federation: What may democracy, as the governance by people, need to learn from cybernetics, as the science of governance?
— And the answer?
The answer is provided in Wiener’s book – and I’ll summarize it for you most briefly.
The main insight that has reached us – or better said that should have reached us from cybernetics, is that the structure of a system drives the system’s behavior. We need to learn about that all-important relationship, between the structure of a system and its behavior, by studying natural and man-made systems. And we need to apply that knowledge there where it will now make the largest positive difference—namely in the design and handling of our socio–technical systems. You’ll notice that this was exactly Engelbart’s call to action, made in the slides we have just seen.
Cybernetics has taught us that if a system is to be controllable (i.e. if anyone will be able to “change course”), it must have a certain minimal structure. Or concretely, that it must have suitable communication and control, or “feedback and control”. This main insight is already the full title of Wiener’s book, “Cybernetics: Or Communication and Control in Man and Animals”.
In 1948, in the last chapter of Cybernetics, Wiener explained why our society doesn’t have the communication and control that would enable us to steer. He pointed out that the link between knowledge work and public opinion and policy had been severed.
You’ll notice that when Engelbart in his second slide talks about “headlights” that are “dim and blurry”, and about “totally inadequate steering and braking controls”, what he’s really saying is that our society’s communication and control are inadequate. He indeed only echoed or federated Wiener’s message, by making it more intuitive and less technical.
— Does this mean that we are not living in a democracy?
We may distinguish two ways to understand the word “democracy” – corresponding to the two distinct orders of things or paradigms, which the Modernity ideogram is inviting us to distinguish.
In the old and still prevailing paradigm, democracy is reified as its current implementation – the “free press”, the “free elections”, the elected representatives… It is assumed that as long as we have all that, we have democracy. The nightmare scenario in that order of things is a dictatorship, where a dictator has taken the instruments of democracy away from the people.
In the emerging order of things, democracy is understood systemically, as the political system where the people are in control. The nightmare scenario is the situation where nobody has control, because our core institutions are not structured to afford control.
— That’s our situation – according to Engelbart’s Slide 2?
Notice that this is a more serious threat to democracy than a dictatorship. A dictator may come to his senses. He may be succeeded by a more reasonable heir, or ousted by a revolution. But how can the people have control in a society where the implements of control don’t even exist?
— Is there real-life evidence that this nightmare scenario may have become reality?
In the Systemic Innovation book I tell a vignette about Jørgen Randers, a young man who in 1969 flew from Oslo to Boston to do a doctorate in physics. And who – having heard a lecture by Jay Forrester – decided to switch to systems science, or more precisely to computer simulation of large societal systems.
(I should mention in parentheses that already at that time, Forrester had ample evidence to show that complex systems – examples of which are our societal systems of all scales and sizes – exhibit counterintuitive behavior, owing to which policies that are based on reactive or causal thinking all too often have opposite effects from what’s intended. Or to put this more simply – Forrester showed that social-systemic “feedback and control”, or “democracy”, must include insights into system dynamics. At the time when Jørgen decided to join him, Forrester was lobbing to present this vitally important insight to the US Congress.)
Long story short, Randers found out – at the very beginning of his career – that our civilization would come to a bitter end, unless…
— Randers was one of the four authors of The Club of Rome’s first and most widely read report, The Limits to Growth?
He was. The Limits to Growth book summarized the results of a simulation study, performed at the MIT under Forrester’s supervision. The main message of this study, the insight that changed the course of Jørgen’s life, was what Engelbart observed on his Slide 2 – namely that our civilization had “completely inadequate steering and braking controls”. And that it’s, as Aurelio Peccei phrased it, “on a collision course with nature”.
— What did Randers do then?
After the study was completed and published, he went on to do whatever he could to make a difference. Renders is a resourceful man. He’s had a high profile in Norwegian academia and politics. And yet his interventions failed. If you click here, you’ll hear him conclude (in 2012, at the Smithsonian in Washington): “Modern democracy, and market economy, cannot solve these problems. We do need a fundamental paradigm shift in the area of governance.”
— So in order to have democracy, we need the ability to democratically change “the systems in which we live and work”? We need systemic innovation?
— You chose Erich Jantsch – and not Doug Engelbart or Norbert Wiener – to serve as the icon for systemic innovation. Why? What was Jantsch’s contribution to that cause?
We may be doing injustice to Engelbart, who created an ingenious methodology for systemic innovation already in 1962, six years before Jantsch and others created their methodology in Bellagio, Italy. We, however, honored Engelbart as the icon of knowledge federation, which is our line of work.
Just as Engelbart endeavored to provide for an evolutionary quantum leap by giving our civilization a ‘super new nervous system’, so did Jantsch do whatever he was able to provide for another, complementary quantum leap – the ‘steering’.
At that time when Jantsch was active, this sort of institutional steering was called “planning”.
In the Systemic Innovation book, we meet Jantsch at the point where he’s giving the opening keynote at the inauguration meeting of The Club of Rome, in Rome in 1968. In the book Jantsch appears in the role of a giant who, having become part of that seminal effort to understand and improve our civilization’s future prospects, clearly saw what needed to be done.
So right after The Club of Rome’s inauguration, Jantsch undertook to federate a suitable methodology, by convening an expert team in Bellagio, Italy, under the auspices of the OECD, Paris. This meeting, which was a genuine federation effort, resulted in a collection of position papers, personal commentaries by the participants, and “The Bellagio Declaration on Planning” that was signed by them all. Here is how this declaration begins:
We, the participants of the O.E.C.D. Working Symposium on Long-RangeForecasting and Planning, having discussed the importance which the subject may have at the present stage of social crisis, feel compelled to put forward our views on the potentials of planning as a method of approach to solving many contemporary problems. Social institutions face growing difficulties as a result of an ever increasing complexity which arises directly and indirectly from the development and assimilation of technology. Many of the most serious conflicts facing mankind result from the interaction of social, economic, technological, political and psychological forces and can no longer be solved by fractional approaches from individual disciplines. The time is past when economic growth can be promoted without consideration of social consequences and when technology can be allowed to develop without consideration of the social prerequisites of change or the social consequences of such change. Diagnosis is often faulty and remedies proposed often merely suppress symptoms rather than attack the basic cause.
— That sounds like a manifesto for knowledge federation!
It does, doesn’t it?
Jantsch, however, federated the ideas and insights of his team further, by developing a methodology that begins with future forecasting, and ends with systemic change. The systemic change was to include not only the change of the structure of the system, but also of the values and other core determinants of the people’s and the system’s behavior. You’ll have no difficulty observing that what we are talking about is exactly the feedback-and-control that our society now lacks and vitally needs.
Jantsch called his method “rational creative action”. There are many different ways to be creative. But if our creative action is to be rational – then it must begin with the choice of direction (“forecasting”); it must end with the systemic changes that enable us to steer in a desired direction (systemic innovation). To steer towards a desirable future.
The institutional re-evolution must begin somewhere; it must be orchestrated from somewhere. But where? It was clear to Jantsch – for reasons which are, I believe, obvious – that the university would have to be the answer. And that to become capable of performing this new leadership role, the university would need to modify its structure. So Jantsch lobbied for academic structural change; at the MIT to begin with.
— Jantsch failed in his attempt to reform the university institution. How did his systemic innovation work continue? What was Jantsch doing in the 1970s, during the last decade of his life?
In the 1970s Jantsch had an adjunct faculty position at U.C. Berkeley. He taught occasional seminars, and researched intensely on what he called the evolutionary vision or the evolutionary paradigm. The turning point was Ilya Prigogine’s visit to Berkeley in 1972. Prigogine later got a Nobel Prize for the work that influenced Jantsch.
Without going into details, we may identify three key Jantsch’s insights, about the evolutionary paradigm, which systemic innovation and knowledge federation need to assimilate and evolve further:
- Intervening into evolution, or “design for evolution” to quote the title of Jantsch’s seminal 1975 book, gives us a dramatically higher leverage for intervening into large societal systems than attempting to change their structure directly
- Evolution is a paradigm – different both from the paradigm of traditional science (which tends to focus on reversible processes, while evolution is intrinsically irreversible) and from traditional cybernetics (which tends to focus on keeping systems in equilibrium, while it’s disequilibrium that drives the evolution forward)
- The evolutionary paradigm leads to an approach to systems that is different from both mentioned approaches or paradigms. Jantsch described it by using the metaphor of a boat on a river (instead of a bus…). Traditional science would study the system by observing the boat and the river from above, or “objectively”. Traditional cybernetics would see it from within the boat, and look for good ways to steer. The evolutionary paradigm demands that we position ourselves within the river. That we see ourselves as drops of water, as parts of evolution. The question would then be how should we best present ourselves to this evolution. This question has some most interesting ethical consequences, which we might explore later.
(I’ll note in parentheses that Jantsch was not the only giant to think these thoughts. Buckminster Fuller – who worked on similar challenges as a designer – expressed roughly all three points succinctly by saying “I am a trimtab”. Fuller implemented the ideas we’ve been talking about here in an original way by developing the World Game – see Trimtabs for Systemic Change and Holoscope for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge.)
— On The Paradigm Strategy poster, which you discuss on Knowledge Federation dot Org in Federation through Conversations, you are showing a thread linking vignettes about Norbert Wiener and Erich Jantsch. The third vignette in the thread is about Ronald Reagan. What is that thread supposed to convey?
That thread explains how exactly this democratic re-evolution, toward a “sustainable” civilization, got stalled.
In the analogy with the emergence of science, developed on Knowledge Federation dot Org, this thread explains what might be keeping a contemporary Galilei from sharing his insights with the public.
— And the answer?
In 1980, Reagan won the US elections, on the agenda “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”. His point was that governance doesn’t really need knowledge. That “free competition” is all we need. And that, indeed, any interfering with the perfect mechanism of the market will only create or exacerbate problems.
Please be mindful of the importance of this issue. What we are talking about is the key meme (‘cultural gene’), the one that determines the very course of our evolution. Do we need knowledge? Do we need ethics? Or is the free competition alone sufficient to turn our self-serving acts into the best possible world?
— Norbert Wiener held the opposite opinion?
While making a case for cybernetics, in his 1948 manuscript, Wiener pointed out in no ambiguous terms that the belief that free competition can replace information is a politically motivated myth (his keyword “homeostatic process” corresponds to what we’ve been calling “feedback-and-control”):
There is a belief, current in many countries, which has been elevated to the rank of an official article of faith in the United States, that free competition is itself a homeostatic process: that in a free market the individual selfishness of the bargainers, each aiming to sell as high and buy as low as possible, will result in the end in (…) the greatest common good. This is associated with the very comforting view that the individual entrepreneur, in seeking to forward his own interest, is in some manner a public benefactor, and has thus earned the great rewards with which society has showered him. Unfortunately, the evidence, such as it is, is against this simple-minded theory.
Wiener then federated this insight, by pointing to both relevant theory and real-life experience.
— You are calling this Wiener’s paradox. Why is this a paradox?
Wiener used this myth as an example, to illustrate his main point – that our society’s feedback-and-control is broken. That academic insights no longer have influence on public opinion, and on policy.
And yet he entrusted his insight to that same broken feedback-and-control. And so did cybernetics, by organizing itself as a traditional discipline.
— And Ronald Reagan – what role does he have in this thread?
Reagan’s role is to complete a spectacular view of a civilization-wide paradox.
Wiener was a classical giant. Having studied mathematics, zoology and philosophy, he got his doctorate in mathematical logic from Harvard—when he was only 18. Then he went on to do foundational work in a number of fields, one of which was cybernetics.
In the last chapter of Cybernetics, Wiener made his case against the “simple-minded theory” by discussing the results of another pair of giants, Von Neumann and Morgenstern, in the theory of games, which they established. Von Neumann was a giant of a similar stature as Wiener; his other seminal achievements include the architecture of the digital computer, which is still in use.
Between 1948 and 1980, thousands of articles were published in cybernetics and game theory.
Ronald Reagan was in no position to argue with the giants of science, or with the scientific community at large. By training he was a media artist, literally a role player.
But Reagan didn’t need to argue with the giants of science. He didn’t need any expertise. In a society where everyone only broadcasts – it’s the air time, and the campaign dollars that buy it, that win the arguments!
Click here to hear Reagan erase, with a single slight of hand and in a most charming tone, also the results of the The Limits to Growth study.
— What is the solution to the Wiener’s paradox?
Engelbart called it “bootstrapping” – and we’ve adopted bootstrapping as one of our keywords. It is not sufficient to only write about what we must do. We must engage in the systemic change ourselves, by creating new systems, with our own minds and bodies. Or in other words, by self-organizing in new ways.
— So bootstrapping is the core challenge that Doug Engelbart left us? The key to “Engelbart’s unfinished revolution”?
There can be no doubt about that.
At the point when Engelbart undertook to federate his message to the world, around the late 1980s and early 1990s, by creating the “Bootstrap Institute” with his daughter Christina, he organized the “Bootstrap Seminar” at Stanford University, to share the “bootstrap paradigm” with the Bay Area academics and business people.
This two-minute video excerpt from his 2008 “Bootstrap Dialogs” will confirm that bootstrapping systemic innovation is also what Engelbart saw as the core task at the conclusion of his career.
— Knowledge Federation was created with that goal in mind?
Knowledge Federation was created by an act of bootstrapping.
In 2010, at our second regular biennial workshop at Inter University Center Dubrovnik, Knowledge Federation made changes in its own system, to adapt to this new purpose. We invited a transdisciplinary community of researchers and professionals, and asked them to see themselves not as individuals pursuing a career in a certain field, but as cells in a collective mind. And to begin to self-organize accordingly – in a way that can spread and scale. The title of our workshop was “Self-Organizing Collective Mind”.
— What was the result? How did Knowledge Federation organize itself?
As a transdiscipline, as I already mentioned. We work by creating a systemic prototype, and a transdiscipline around it, to update it continuously.
— What is a prototype?
A prototype is a model implemented and embedded in practice, acting upon practice aiming to change it. Prototypes are typical results of knowledge federation – just as scientific theories and academic articles are typical results of traditional science.
Prototypes serve as
- Models or theories, because they represent and communicate solutions and results
- Interventions, which give ideas real-life impact, and hence complete the federation
- Experiments, showing what works well and what must still be improved.
Prototypes enable systemic innovation.
— How did Knowledge Federation continue its work after that meeting?
Our next move was to ‘go public’, by presenting systemic innovation and knowledge federation to the Silicon Valley. In 2011 we organized a workshop within the Triple Helix IX international conference, at Stanford University.
This event was a collaboration of Knowledge Federation with a closely related initiative called Program for the Future, which Mei Lin Fung initiated in 2008, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Engelbart’s famous demo, to continue and complete “Engelbart’s unfinished revolution”. By 2011, Knowledge Federation and Program for the Future practically merged together, and the same group of people was using those two brands as it was suitable.
Our preparatory workshop took place in Mei Lin’s house in Palo Alto. Doug and Karen Engelbart joined us for social events, and to hear our dress rehearsal presentations (Doug’s health condition prevented him from being technically involved). Bill and Roberta English (who were Doug’s right and left hand during the Demo days) actively participated in our workshop, and also in our later Bay Area events. You might enjoy this short vignette describing an event that took place in Mei Lin’s house during our 2012 workshop in Palo Alto – which in a down-on-earth way illuminates some of the less known sides of the Silicon Valley’s history, which the Knowledge Federation Trilogy’s second book will illucidate further.
— How did you present the case for systemic innovation and knowledge federation at Stanford?
I presented variants of the same talk twice – first in our workshop, and then in the Innovation Journalism session.
In our workshop I introduced our initiative by recounting a couple of vignettes composing a thread which I called “Knowledge Work Has a Flat Tire“. The concrete story is taken from the climate change opus – and illustrates once again, and in a fractal-like way, the inadequacy of our society’s feedback-and-control, whose consequences could be fatal. My point was that knowledge work has a structural problem. And that we must stop and take care of it before we can reasonably continue speeding forward (publishing and broadcasting).
In the Innovation Journalism session I began by saying:
Imagine that you are a journalist; and that one day you wake up thinking: “It really makes no sense to be a journalist while the things are as they are. Traditional journalism lacks a revenue model, which would make it sustainable in a world with abundant free information. And it is not clear that the journalism we’ve inherited can still fulfill its role of informing people – in an increasingly complex world.”
The problem seems overwhelming. You decide to take a stroll downtown. Soon you find yourself looking at a store that makes tailor-made suits, and thinking: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a similar kind of a workshop – which would tailor our professions! To suit not only the professionals, but also the society those professions are intended to serve.”
Then I introduced Knowledge Federation as exactly that kind of workshop.
— How did Knowledge Federation continue its work after Palo Alto?
We went on to create a series of prototypes. Our next workshop took place just a few months later, in Barcelona. We created a journalism prototype, which federates knowledge, and brings to the people insights about systemic causes and systemic intervention points.
Our workshop, titled “An Innovation Ecosystem for Good Journalism”, also created a template for creating systems.
— Who may have the knowledge and the authority to re-create journalism?
Paddy Coulter (director of Oxford Global Media and former director of Oxford University Reuters School of Journalism), Mei Lin Fung (founder of the Program for the Future) and David Price (co-founder of Debategraph and of Global Sensemaking) speaking at our 2011 workshop “An Innovation Ecosystem for Good Journalism” in Barcelona.
We were careful to bring together a transdisciplinary community of participants who together have sufficient knowledge and authority to create an initial prototype – as we hinted by the above image, shared on Knowledge Federation dot Org. We also engendered a suitable co-creative process.
— If Knowledge Federation is doing systemic innovation, why didn’t it call itself the transdiscipline for systemic innovation?
As an academic field, systemic innovation must be built on the legacy of the systems sciences. If we as knowledge federation should do our federation right, we must be careful to only federate their insights.
— Is that why in Federation through Stories you began the story of Knowledge Federation by telling about Alexander Laszlo and your collaboration?
Yes, that’s one of the reasons. Alexander – as we hinted there – may be best qualified among the systems scientists to represent and continue Erich Jantsch’s thinking and line of work.
But there is also another reason. In the Systemic Innovation book, the story of Doug Engelbart continues with a serendipity: Alexander Laszlo initiated a systemic transformation toward collective intelligence in his academic community just a few days after Engelbart passed away! This singular act of bootstrapping took place in July 2013, at the International Systems Society’s annual meeting in Haiphong, Vietnam – which Alexander organized as the society’s president.
You’ll have no difficulty seeing why the community where bootstrapping was taking place – the academic systems community – could not have been better chosen. Why it could have been the natural academic community where systemic self-organization could be initiated, in a way that may scale further! The International Society of the Systems Sciences already has the all the expertise that’s needed to understand the need for, and the nuances of, such self-organization. And to take action.
I began my talk in Haiphong by saying “I came here to build a bridge – between two academic communities; and two lines of interest.”
— So Alexander Laszlo took the torch from Engelbart and Jantsch? He took up bootstrapping?
The above photo was taken a year later, in 2014, at the European Meetings on Cybernetics and Systems Research in Vienna – where Alexander and I organized our first workshop together. I noticed the serendipity and initiated a photo session. Valeria Delgado took the pictures. The T-shirt that Alender was wearing was from an earlier EMCSR meeting. The inscription on the T-shirt I was wearing was the motto that Alexander chose for the conference he organized in Haiphong – which was adopted also as the motto in Vienna. You’ll notice that “being the systems you want to see in the world” corresponds snuggly to what Engelbart called “bootstrapping”. And why bootstrapping is truly an idea whose time has come!
— How did you and Alexander meet?
By another serendipity.
At the point when Alexander was being inaugurated as president, at the International Society for the Systems Sciences 2012 annual meeting in San Hose, Knowledge Federation was presenting one of its prototypes, The Game-Changing Game, practically next door, in Palo Alto, at the Bay Area Future Salon. Louis Klein, an ISSS community elder whose work is in institutional transformation, showed up at our presentation. He approached me after my talk and said “I’ll introduce you to some people.” He introduced me to Alexander and his team.
— What is The Game-Changing Game?
It’s a generic way to change systems.
The Game-Changing Game is a real-life ‘game’, where people in power positions, who are called Z-players, ‘play’ by empowering the younger A-players (students, entrepreneurs…) to ‘play their career games’ in a game-changing way – namely by changing, rather than merely learning their professions. By changing “the systems in which they live and work”.
— According to what’s just been said, something like The Game-Changing Game is what we, as generation, owe to our next generation, isn’t it?
Later in 2012, in Zagreb, we inaugurated The Club of Zagreb, as a redesign of The Club of Rome based on The Game-Changing Game. Mei Lin Fung and Jack Park joined us from California, David Price from England, Yuzuru Tanaka from Japan – and we also had quite an excellent and promising local participation.
The day after the inauguration we boarded a small bus, which took us to a memorable two-day journey through parts of former Yugoslavia, to Dubrovnik, where our regular biennial workshop at the Inter University Center was to begin.
— What is the current status of The Game-Changing Game?
I am in conversation with Andrey Komissarov, a creative innovator of education and educational game designer in Russia. His many projects include an experimental school based on educational games, with 170 students and 30 teachers, in a suburb of Moscow. Andrey is interested in creating a real-life version of The Game-Changing Game. But he’ll need funding.
Meanwhile some of The Game-Changing Game ideas are evolving further within the Holotopia project and prototype, which is our current focus.
— What resulted from your collaboration with Alexander?
A collection of prototypes. They are listed with other prototypes in Federation through Applications.
One of them is The Lighthouse – which is a direct systemic solution to the Wiener’s paradox.
— Why did you call it “The Lighthouse”?
Imagine the systems sciences as a continent or an island, where exactly the kind of insights that are needed to motivate and inform systemic innovation, that “different thinking”, are developed. Imagine “our various organizations”, and in particular our various attempts to make our civilization “sustainable”, as stray ships on a stormy see. Then The Lighthouse may be seen as exactly what’s been lacking, which can guide the stray ships to the safety of the systemic innovation‘s harbor.
The Lighthouse is also what’s needed to allow the great work that’s been done in the systems sciences (which include cybernetics) to become socially relevant. To have the kind of impact it needs to have.
— So The Lighthouse is also a general prototype of a way to dissolve the Wiener’s paradox? Of a way to federate any socially game-changing insight, and to bring it into public awareness, and into policy?
Yes, that’s exactly what it is.
— There is also an educational prototype in systemic innovation?
The Leadership of Systemic Innovation doctoral program, which Alexander initiated and developed at the Buenos Aires Institute of Technology, is conceived as a prototype or a model of systemic innovation education.
— You’ve been collaborating with Alexander on that program?
Yes, I have. My course changed its name each year, but the core theme was always to place systemic innovation on the frontier of the 21st century science. Which is, of course, exactly what you and I are talking about here.
I also had the honor to put the ball in play for this doctoral program, by giving the opening keynote. I began by telling a vignette about Engelbart.
— You really like to tell that story, don’t you?
I obviously do. But that was not the main reason why I did that in Buenos Aires.
Many regions and economies have attempted to transplant the entrepreneurial culture of the Silicon Valley to their soil – and largely failed. Telling the story of Doug was a way to say that something much larger is actually possible. Something that the Silicon Valley failed to achieve, owing to the idiosyncrasies of its culture.
— In several points on Knowledge Federation dot Org you suggest that systemic innovation could make us the kind of difference that industrial innovation and the Industrial Revolution made during the last Enlightenment. That it could make human work radically more effective and efficient. Would you like to explain that? Perhaps by sharing an example?
Of course. Any of our prototypes will do. Each of them has been created with that purpose in mind, to illustrate those very differences and advantages.
— Perhaps you may discuss briefly the Collaborology educational prototype?
OK, gladly. You may take a look at our 2016 course flyer while I talk.
The Collaborology course is internationally federated. This means that instead of one person creating a whole course, the learning resources are created and taught by selected experts and learners worldwide.
Think of all the time and energy that can be saved!
If your job is to create a single lecture, and if even that lecture is federated (by creative communication designers, game designers, multimedia artists…) – education can naturally become something entirely different than it is today. It can properly compete with the game designers for the students’ attention. It can integrate their skills.
— The conventional MOOC model offers similar advantages, doesn’t it?
The MOOC is still educational broadcasting. A single expert or group still creates the whole course. One instructor teaches thousands – while others are left out. In Collaborology, everyone is included.
— You described Collaborology in term of its design patterns, which are challenge-solution pairs. Are there other Collaborology design patterns you’d like to mention, which will illustrate the advantages of systemic innovation in education?
Collaborology – and systemic innovation – offer quite a few systemic advantages.
Think about the overall core challenge: We want to empower the emergence of the larger paradigm, by fostering systemic innovation, and the evolution and change of institutions in particular. Then an education where people are trained for a specific traditional profession, and before they would join the work force, is obviously not an enabler but a hindrance. Collaborology implements an educational model where people can learn a new body of knowledge – at any point in life. According to their own background, needs and interests.
At the same time, this new body of knowledge turns out to be exactly what’s needed yet lacking in the conventional educational opus – if people should be able to change systems. Collaborology teaches exactly what people need to know, to be able to use the new information technology to develop new ways to think together and collaborate.
A number of questions immediately arise: How will the knowledge resources be provided (if we don’t have a fixed curriculum, where topics are presented in linear order)? How is the exam to be organized (if each student can study a different collection of themes). A new technology called the domain map object (we earlier called it polyscopic topic map) is developed to answer such questions. It is listed as one of the prototypes.
Education, however, is not only about insights and skills. To have what it takes to change the systems in which they live and work, the students will need to acquire the ability to see and think beyond their own narrowly conceived career interests. They’ll need to be able to join forces and collaborate – toward a goal that they jointly see as larger, common interest. In Collaborology, the students and the faculty form a design lab, whose task is to create learning resources for the course and for future-generation students. And information resources for the world. Collaborology invites its students to form creative teams, venture into unexplored areas and bring back new knowledge. Their ability to spot an unfulfilled need, to get engaged, to collaborate and contribute is what’s encouraged, and graded. The domain map enables the students to see what areas remain to be explored; and to place their own contributions, and make them visible and accessible to others.
We also have another task, to federate the global knowledge resources. How wonderful if education could be used also for that job! If students can not only be learning, but also actively contributing to knowledge! Just think of all the work that’s being done by students. What if that work can somehow be used not only for learning, but also for federating knowledge? In Collaborology, the students have a similar role as the bacteria do in an ecosystem – they extract ‘nutrients’ (vital insights) from the ‘dead bodies’ (old and new documents), and bringing them back into the knowledge-work ecosystem, to be reused.
In a similar way, by federating the course (the course is being taught by international experts) – this educational model also becomes a vehicle for putting together relevant resources on any new and relevant theme.
Within the transdiscipline as general institutional template, which shows how a new body of knowledge can be federated from the opus of existing fields of interest, Collaborology provides a sustainable business model for achieving that.
— Was the system of Collaborology also federated in some way?
It needed to be. That was our intention.
We made close ties with Pavel Luksha and his Moscow-based Global Education Futures initiative. GEF was federating disruptive and constructive educational innovative ideas globally, by organizing structured co-creative dialogs with educational change makers.
Pavel joined our regular 2014 biennial workshop in Dubrovnik. In 2015 the GEF had the first in the series of its international dialogs near the Stanford University in Palo Alto. After this event we had a joint co-creative knowledge federation workshop in Mei Lin’s house in Palo Alto, to combine our ideas. The main idea was, of course, that GEF would function as a transdiscipline, and that the Collaborology would be the corresponding prototype.
— I am still intrigued. Even a touch more than before.
— Aren’t the prospects for radically improving the use and usefulness of knowledge, and giving our society in peril the vision it requires, more than sufficient to make a case for knowledge federation? Why are we still talking? Why don’t we get down to business?
We haven’t yet talked about the main point.
— The main point? What could possibly be more important than…?
We are proposing knowledge federation to the academia. As far as the academia is concerned, real-life effects are beside the point.
— You don’t really mean that, do you?
Already the two stories we have just seen, about Doug Engelbart and Erich Jantsch, will show that.
Engelbart did not come up with his vision because he was interested in technology. If you click here, you’ll hear him recount (in 2007 at Google) how in 1951 he decided to direct his career in a way that would maximize its benefits to the mankind. And how he then thought for three months, systematically and extensively, about the best way to do that. What could make the largest positive difference to humanity? If today you would ask me that same question, I wouldn’t be able to give you a better answer than what Engelbart found back then.
Engelbart saw the university as the natural place where his vision could be pursued. After all, it was a radical improvement of knowledge work that his project was about. If you click here, you’ll hear him tell how he got laughed at, when he tried to explain his ideas to his academic colleagues. And how he decided to leave the university, when a senior colleague told him “if you keep talking like this, you’ll be an acting assistant professor forever”. It’s peer-reviewed publications the academia wants, not world-changing visions!
Not being a technologist, Jantsch couldn’t leave the university. This giant who envisioned how exactly the university should change to become a guiding light to our society in peril did remain an adjunct assistant professor forever. When in 1980 he passed away, only 51 years old, an obituarist wrote that irregular nutrition might have been one of the causes.
— Why are the universities insensitive to the question of practical relevance?
There are two reasons. One of them is valid, and needs to be considered carefully.
— There is a counterargument to the pragmatic arguments for reforming the academia?
Yes, there is.
The contemporary academia did not develop as a way to create useful knowledge, but from a tradition where knowledge was pursued for its own sake – as Stephen Toulmin pointed out in Return to Reason.
And ironically perhaps, as we saw in Knowledge Federation dot Org’s preamble, it has turned out that this free pursuit of knowledge has clear practical advantages, compared to the pursuit of knowledge for practical interests. The problems that in Galilei’s time seemed unsolvable, such as the devastating epidemics and the never-ending religious wars, were not resolved by focusing on those problems, but by developments whose roots were in astrophysics, mathematics and philosophy.
The technology you and I are using to communicate illustrates that this free pursuit of knowledge continues to shower advantages. The VLSI technology would be impossible without quantum mechanics. And quantum mechanics could hardly result from an interest in technology.
— You have a counter-counterargument?
The paradigm we are proposing is a natural continuation of the academic tradition. The free pursuit of knowledge has brought us to a point where the change we are proposing is immanent.
— On Federation through Images you showed how knowledge federation can be built bottom-up, by starting from fundamental premises, from epistemology. What is epistemology?
Epistemology is knowledge of knowledge. It includes the insights, the principles and the values that follow from the knowledge we own, and orient our handling of knowledge.
— Epistemology is not everyone’s interest. Why do you consider it the main point?
Because the epistemology is the key to the comprehensive cultural and social change that has been the pragmatic motivation for knowledge federation. It has always been that. For centuries an existing order of things might appear to people as just normal, as the reality. Then some new insights change the way in which “language, thought and reality” are conceived of (to quote the title of Benjamin Lee Whorf’s book) – and people begin to see the world differently. Naturally, they then also change the world accordingly.
That’s the kind of change that was taking place in Galilei’s time, isn’t it? The main point of Knowledge Federation dot Org is to show that a similar advent is in store for us today.
You’ll recall from the beginning of Federation through Conversations that the “power to transcend paradigms” has been identified as the most impactful “systemic leverage point” (point where intervention is most powerful and fruitful). Epistemology is what gives us that power. Add to this the fact we’ve been pointing to all along – which you and I are about to discuss now – that the prevailing epistemology is ready to be transcended, because the evidence is already there – and you’ll see why it may take very little to tip it over. The overall conclusion is our formula “large change made easy”, which we used as a subtitle in Federation through Conversations. It’s a powerful message, isn’t it?
— How would you define our current epistemology? What is it exactly that needs to change?
The first thing that needs to change is that our current epistemology hasn’t been defined. We’ve been told to look at the world in a “scientific” way. But what exactly is that?
Even when a definition of science is given – for instance this relatively recent official definition of science by the Science Council – neither the purpose to be served is specified, nor the principles based on which science is to be pursued. The definition only reifies the current practice – and attempts to justify it by claims of “objectivity”.
One might conclude that the scientific disciplines, such as they are, simply embody the scientific epistemology.
But if that’s the case – how can this ever change? How can one even say something critical about that order of things – without it being “controversial”? And only adding to the confusion?
— Then tell me – what do you propose? How shall we move the evolution of knowledge forward?
Our proposal is the same as always – to create a prototype and a transdiscipline around it, to update it continuously. The foundation on which we create truth and meaning, and the methods we use for that core purpose, should, in other words, be allowed to evolve and follow the changes in our knowledge of knowledge, information technology, and societal needs.
To bootstrap this process, we’ve developed an initial prototype in quite a bit of detail. On Federation through Images we specified enough of those details to provide a proof of concept. To show how this can be done.
— Your presentation on Federation through Images is developed around the mirror as the central metaphor. What is the mirror expected to suggest?
Several things. Its first message is that the first step, with which the evolution of knowledge may need to continue, is to stop and self-reflect about the academia‘s self-identity and purpose.
The problem that we, Knowledge Federation are now facing, when reissuing the call to action that Engelbart, Jantsch and other giants made a half-century ago, is the same one that they had. The academia, considered as a system, just as our other systems, is lacking a feedback-and-control that would enable it to modify itself and evolve further.
— The mirror is suggesting that our situation demands that we stop and self-reflect?
It does. And also that when we do that, a complete change of self-perception and self-identity will be likely to follow.
— The mirror is also suggesting the result of academic self-reflection?
When we see ourselves in the mirror, we see that we are not above the world, observing it “objectively”, as we believed we were. We see ourselves in the world.
As an academic metaphor, the mirror points to the need for a new academic self-identity. Our role, what we really are in our society, is not what we believed it was. We are not the objective observers of reality. We can no longer legitimately claim that we are that. At the same time, we have acquired a new social role, which is the pivotal one. We have become the custodians of our culture’s very foundations. We are the guardians of the premises that govern how truth and meaning are constructed in our society.
— We are once again back to the bus with candle headlights, aren’t we? The conclusion, which you believe an academic self-reflection will lead us to, is the same as the one the bus is suggesting? The academia must step beyond reifying the ‘candle’, and learn to perceive itself as a piece in a larger puzzle, as our society’s guiding light; as the provider of our society’s light and vision. You are proposing a way for the academia to adapt to that centrally important role?
That’s exactly right. That’s what we’ve been talking all along. We are now reaching that same conclusion by looking at fundamental premises.
— Your point, your assessment of the contemporary academic condition, is that the evolution of knowledge has brought us here, in front of this mirror. The academia is at the moment too busy producing peer-reviewed articles to even look at the mirror. So it keeps going around it. But the evolutionary path must continue – and it’s leading us through the mirror? The evolution of knowledge can, and needs to, continue in an unexpected, seemingly magical way – as a step through the mirror?
Yes, that’s exactly the point. There’s a most wonderful creative frontier, and a whole new academic reality on the other side of the mirror, waiting to be discovered, and developed.
The academia is now in a position, and indeed has an obligation, to step into the reality on the other side of the mirror, and to guide our society to this new reality.
— This is important. Let’s slow down a bit. You’ve made some bold claims. But do they have any substance? Would you be so kind to bring this conversation down to earth by explaining how exactly the evolution of knowledge has brought us to the brink of a radical epistemology change, or in front of that mirror?
Gladly. The story is as old as the homo sapiens. But we may begin it here by zooming in on an event that gave it a whole new course – an event that took place twenty five centuries ago.
— Plato’s creation of the Academia?
The trial of Socrates, Plato’s precursor and teacher.
Socrates was not an academic in the contemporary sense of the word. His publication record didn’t amount to much. He spent his time mostly conversing with people, engaging them in dialogs. His goal was to show that they didn’t really know what they believed they knew. That what people considered as knowledge was not solid and true knowledge.
The age-old dictum “knowledge is power” can be interpreted in two ways. Solid knowledge can give us the power to change reality. Presumed knowledge can legitimize the power of the powerful and prevent change. Socrates acted in the service of the former.
The powerful Athenians found Socrates a nuisance. They charged him of impiety and of corrupting the youth, and sentenced him to drink a poison. But his student Plato established the Academia, to continue this important work.
— It was the pursuit of knowledge of knowledge that created the academia? Your invitation to academic self-reflection in front of the mirror is the invitation to return to the academia‘s point of origin, to its quintessential activity and values?
Yes, that’s exactly what we are proposing.
We must also mention Aristotle, Plato’s esteemed student. Aristotle carried the Academia’s project further by applying its rational method of inquiry to a broad variety of themes – including the natural phenomena.
— Two thousand years later Galilei was continuing that same evolutionary stream?
The rediscovery of Aristotle was a milestone in the development of the Middle Ages. But the scholastics used his rational method only to only argue the truth of the Scriptures.
Aristotle’s physics was common-sense: Material objects tend to fall down; heavier objects tend to fall faster.
Galilei proved him wrong by throwing stones of varying sizes from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He wrote a mathematical formula, v = gt, by which the speed of a falling object could be calculated exactly.
— You are alluding to scientific experiments and theories?
I am. Galilei in house arrest was science in house arrest!
— Galilei was one of Newton’s “giants”, wasn’t he?
That’s what he was, without doubt.
— Galilei was sentenced because he claimed that the Earth was moving?
That was only a technical detail. Or more precisely an anomaly, to use Thomas Kuhn’s useful keyword.
If we allow the Earth to move, then the motions of the planets become simpler and easier to understand. And we can also use mathematics, and make precise theories and predictions. But in Galilei’s time this natural arrangement of the planets had an obstacle: The Earth that moves contradicted the Scriptures! The real reason why Galilei was tried and sentenced was that he had the audacity of spirit (or the deadly sin of pride, as his judges might have seen it) to claim that one may hold and defend an opinion as probable after it had been declared contrary to Holy Scripture. Galilei was required to “abjure, curse and detest” those opinions.
You’ll have no difficulty noticing that also then the social order depended on the epistemology that Galilei was bringing into question. Wasn’t it the Almighty himself who gave the absolute power to the kings? And the keys to salvation to the clergy?
But the evolution of knowledge could not be stopped. The empowerment of the human reason – which Galilei represented in this conflict – was what brought about the Enlightenment. The reliance on reason was the new Archimedean point that enabled the founding fathers of science and of the Enlightenment to ‘move the Earth’.
— So far so good. But you are saying that this too has to change. Why? What led to the contemporary point of change?
The Enlightenment empowered the reason to make a difference. But the people back then knew little about the reason’s own pitfalls. They didn’t yet have the ability to self-reflect. They simply mistook the rewarding aha feeling, which we get when the reason grasps something in a certain way, as the very reality test.
When I try to comprehend what has happened, how exactly we got here, in front of the mirror, I take recourse to what George Lakoff called “metaphors we live by”. Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, found out that we tend to organize our abstract or high-level ideas by relying on simple embodied physical metaphors, which we acquire through contact with physical objects while growing up.
At the point “in the humanity’s childhood” when our contemporary weltanschauung was taking shape, and when science became prevalent – let’s place it into the middle of the 19th century, to be concrete – the mechanisms were changing all visible aspects of human existence. At the same time, the successes of science in unraveling the mechanisms of nature made the creation of mechanisms possible.
— The mechanism became the metaphor we live by?
It did. We learned to look at the world by trying to understanding how it works. How certain causes produce certain effects.
Whatever could not be apprehended in that way began to appear to our ancestors as unreal. And vice versa.
Our understanding of science, and of our very cognition, developed accordingly. The photographic camera had just been invented, and it was natural to assume that the human eye and the human mind were in essence similar. Science, it appeared, only extended our ability to see the reality “objectively”, as if by adding new lenses to the lens of the eye. The scientific disciplines, their specific terminology and methods, appeared to be something to which we simply had to submit ourselves, if we should see the world “objectively”.
— The Enlightenment, as it has developed so far, replaced the “reality” of the Scriptures with what Einstein called the “plebeian illusion of naive realism, according to which things ‘are’ as they are perceived by us through our senses”?
It did. It is a most revealing exercise to explore just how much this illusion “dominates the daily life of men”. We perceive something as pleasurable, and automatically make it our goal. Then we use scientific rationality and the best of our technology to acquire more of such pleasurable things.
We consume even information in that unreflective way!
— How would you characterize the epistemology that resulted from this “naive realism”?
When the reason grasps something somehow, in whatever way seems to be sufficiently consistent with the “scientific worldview”, that’s automatically considered as the reality test.
A lavish repertoire of simplifications resulted – as cookies on which our reason thrives. Such as that money is what it’s all about. Or that the living beings including us humans are seen as in essence just machines, which somehow got infected by the survival drive. We understand the issue of health in terms of “disease causes” and “remedies”. We conceived of our “pursuit of hapiness” as pursuit of things that seem attractive.
— So there is impiety, and pride or arrogance, in the way we’ve been using reason? There is a way in which the judges of Socrates and Galilei were right – even when being wrong?
There’s this wonderful irony in our situation, to which the uninformed use of reason has brought us. Classical logic (as formulated already by Aristotle) has “law of excluded middle” at its core, as an axiom. If X is true, then not X must be false! This is the kind of logic which can make our reason so sure of itself!
On Knowledge Federation dot Org you may see how a completely different logic is emerging – which is dialogical, inclusive, careful. Which listens to nuances.
So yes, there might be some value in the idea of going back to those trials, and seeing if there might be ways in which the accusers of Modernity’s heroes might have been right – even when they were so obviously wrong!
— Science developed new knowledge of knowledge, didn’t it?
It did. But that knowledge of knowledge too was initially rooted in naive realism – hidden under layers of scientific sophistication.
— The 20th century scientific insights challenged the “plebeian illusion of naive realism”?
Scientists became able to look into the supposed camera – in biology of perception, psychology of cognition, sociology… They found out that the thing was definitely not a camera. Instead of a camera recording an objective picture of reality, they saw a hierarchy of physiological, psychological and social processes, by which one out of many possible “realities” are constructed from a hodgepodge of data. Humberto Maturana, Jean Piaget and Berger and Luckmann might be iconic, because they not only saw this, from the point of view of their respective disciplines, but also how the insights about our reality construction are leading us toward new academic and social realities!
In the Holotopia prototype, we are organizing their and other related insights under a shared umbrella called socialized reality. The socialized reality insight radically changes the status of the concept “reality” – from something on which our creation of truth and meaning must be founded, to a product of our socialization. And also to an instrument of our socialization. It is the nature and the dynamics of our socialization that this centrally important insight is pointing to – and inviting us to understand it more deeply.
— Before you talk about related scientific research – perhaps you may give a brief intuitive explanation also here, as you did for those earlier two insights?
You’ll easily understand the idea of socialized reality, if you look at how it influenced our cultural traditions and their mutual relationships. Those socially induced “realities” have such a strong grip on people, that they are ready to wage wars against the people whose tradition is a slight modification of their own. Even when the scriptures of their tradition explicitly forbid them to kill!
The reason why Galilei was tried was that he was challenging the socialized reality on which the order of the Middle Ages depended. Could a similar advent be in store for us today?
— Scientific results demand that we now internalize and federate the socialized reality insight?
Maturana, having seen how reality construction works by studying the biology of perception, understood that our liberation from fixed and hereditary “realities” would have profound consequences. “I claim that the most central question that humanity faces today is the question of reality”, he wrote in an article titled Reality: The Search for Objectivity or the Quest for a Compelling Argument. If you take a look at this article, you’ll have a chance to follow Maturana refute objectivity. “From all this it follows that an observer has no operational basis to make any statement or claim about objects, entities or relations as if they existed independently of what he or she sees,” he concludes. So the reason why we tend to be so sure that our reality is the real one is that we’ve received innumerable confirmations of this ‘fact’ from our social group or culture – via innumerably many subtle or obvious carrots and sticks. But our social group is in no better position to see the “real reality” than a single person is: “Furthermore, a community of observers that cannot distinguish in the experience between perception and illusion is, in this respect, in no better position”, Maturana continues. “Their agreement does not give operational validity to a distinction that none of them can make indifvidudlally. In fact, once the biological condition of the observer is accepted, the assumption that an observer can make any statement about entities that exist independently of what he or she does, that is, in a domain of objective reality, becomes nonsensical or vacuous because there is no operation of the observer that could satisfy it.”
Piaget, who had developmental psychology as the focus of his work, proved experimentally that “egocentrism” (the illusion that everyone sees what one sees from one’s own standpoint) is a phase in the psychological development of a child. Naturally, he understood how the overcoming of this tendency on the phylogenetic level could be a natural next step in our social and academic maturing. Having recognized that the scientific discipline epitomizes and institutionalizes “egocentrism”, at a 1970 conference, where interdisciplinarity was discussed, Piaget proposed that mere collaboration between disciplines would not be sufficient; that transcending disciplinarity or transdisciplinarity would have to be the academia‘s goal.
Berger and Luckmann, as sociologists, reached an insight that is even more relevant to our conversation. They not only explained the mechanics of social reality constructions, but also observed that in human societies those constructed realities tend to be used as “universal theories” – to legitimize and hold in place a certain societal order of things.
And socialization, as we’ve come to understand it, is a more effective way to keep the evolution of knowledge in check than censorship and house arrest!
— The socialized reality insight shows who or what may be holding Galilei in house arrest today?
We thought it was the clergy, and the religion. And that once they no longer have the power to determine our worldview, the problem has been solved. But now we can begin to see that what tends to hinder or misdirect our evolution is really deeply woven in the mechanics of how human perception and human culture and society operate! Much of Knowledge Federation’s work has been focused on federating the insights that explain this dynamic, and ways to overcome it. To truly become free. And to continue evolving. We’ll see more of them as we go along.
For now, I propose that we continue our simulated academic self-reflection in front of the mirror.
— In Federation through Images you didn’t federate the scientific insights that have brought us to the mirror, as you just did. You only quoted Einstein.
The idea was to tease out a minimal yet compelling argument. Einstein appears in our prototype as the icon for modern science. When we quote Einstein, we are suggesting that it’s the modern science that is telling us something.
It has turned out that two quotations of Einstein were sufficient to bring our point home.
In the first, Einstein explained why it is impossible to demonstrate that scientific models correspond to reality.
A scientist cannot open up the supposed mechanism of nature to see what is in there. “He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism” (as one could do by opening a watch), Einstein remarked, “and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison.”
In the second excerpt, parts of which we’ve seen a moment ago, Einstein observed that the pervasive belief that our perceptions and theories correspond to reality tends to be a product of illusion.
The conclusion suggests itself: Why base an all-important activity, our quest of truth, meaning and knowledge, on a criterion that cannot be verified? And which itself tends to a product of illusion?
— Einstein held the position that scientists construct concepts and theories?
He did. In Federation through Images we quoted this excerpt from his “Autobiographical Notes”, where that was made explicit:
“Enough of this. Newton, forgive me; you found just about the only way possible in your age for a man of highest reasoning and creative power. The concepts that you created are even today still guiding our thinking in physics, although we now know that they will have to be replaced by others further removed from the sphere of immediate experience, if we aim at a profounder understanding of relationships.”
Newton created the concepts that are guiding our thinking. Those concepts will have to be replaced by others. Indeed, modern physics was created by replacing our traditional concepts “by others further removed from the sphere of immediate experience”. Before Einstein, everyone took it for granted that the distance and the time were objectively given, that they were not relative.
— OK, I am ready to grant you that we can no longer legitimately claim that it is within human ability to observe the reality objectively, and merely report how it “really is”. And in particular that the sciences are not doing that. What now? What comes next?
The evolution of knowledge must continue. We must step through the mirror!
— How can we do that?
By federating knowledge of knowledge. By allowing knowledge work to evolve further, by federating relevant insights.
Our recommendation, how exactly to go about doing that, is the same as always. We are proposing to develop a prototype, and a transdiscipline around it to update it continuously – and keep it consistent with the insights that demand such updates, as they emerge.
— That’s what’s proposed on Knowledge Federation dot Org?
— How do we ‘step through the mirror‘? How do we begin?
The first step, the one that amounts to the apparent magic, is to use or better said to adapt what Villard Van Orman Quine called “truth by convention”.
— A whole new approach to truth?
Truth by convention is not at all new.
Quine saw truth by convention as “an adjunct of progress in the logical foundations of any science”.
“The less a science has advanced,” he wrote, in Truth by Convention, “the more its terminology tends to rest on an uncritical assumption of mutual understanding.” Or, one might say, on the uncritical assumption that what we are talking about is reality, so everyone knows what it is. The alternative, according to Quine, is to use definitions conceived as conventions: “[W]hat was once regarded as a theory about the world becomes reconstrued as a convention of language. Thus it is that some flow from the theoretical to the conventional is an adjunct of progress in the logical foundations of any science.”
If truth by convention is a way in which the sciences mature – why not apply it to knowledge work at large? Why not let our social construction of truth and meaning as a whole mature in a similar way?
— You adopted “truth by convention” as one of your keywords. What is truth by convention?
It’s the kind of truth that is common in mathematics, and in theoretical sciences. “Let x be… Then…”. The meaning of x is defined by a convention. It is meaningless to ask whether x “really is” as defined.
You might now already see why truth by convention could be a new Archimedean point. And why it may be necessary – the “common sense” and the “correspondence with reality” being proven unreliable.
— You don’t use “truth by convention” exactly as Quine defined it?
We almost do. We only took his natural idea one natural step further – by turning itself into a convention.
— I beg your pardon?
We turned truth by convention into a convention by creating a methodology.
— What is a methodology?
It’s a written convention. A methodology allows us to spell out the rules, to specify the fundamental premises, by stating them as conventions. The first convention is that all claims within our methodology are conventions.
We take, in other words, no recourse to “reality”. Within the context of our methodology, it is impossible to claim that the things “really are” as claimed.
The formulation of a methodology gives us a way to explicate the foundations. A methodology definition is a specification of the fundamental assumptions – the principles and the criteria – based on which the methods and the entire praxis are to be developed.
Our prototype methodology is called Polyscopic Modeling, or polyscopy for short.
This prototype is created by combining some of the reported 20th century epistemological insights with some of the time-honored values and methods of science. With suitable adaptations, of course.
— Am I understanding you correctly? The idea is, as I understand it, to federate the foundations for creating truth and meaning, instead of having them fixed in any form, and in particular in the form of the traditional disciplines. This can be done by creating a methodology, which is a written convention – and by turning the epistemological state of the art insights into conventions?
You understanding is precise and correct.
— Polyscopy is conceived as something like “the scientific method” – but tailored to the purpose of giving the contemporary people and society a suitable vision?
That’s right. It would perhaps be even more to the point to call it an evolving vision.
— Something large and essential seems to be missing here. You said that polyscopy takes no recourse to reality. But if the claims and results that are made in polyscopy are not about reality – then what are they really about?
I prefer to avoid that word, “reality” – just as Einstein did when he was formulating his “epistemological credo”. Polyscopy answers your question by turning Einstein’s epistemological credo into a convention.
In polyscopy, information reflects human experience, not “reality”. The human experience is, furthermore, not assumed to have any a priori structure. Rather, it is considered, by convention, as something akin to the ink blot in the Rorschach test – namely as something to which we assign interpretations.
Our “concepts and propositions”, or models and claims, are treated as “a creation of man, together with the rules of syntax, which constitute the structure of the conceptual system” – exactly as Einstein did when formulating his “epistemological credo” (see Federation through Images). They are, in other words, considered to be ways of looking at experience, which are called scopes.
We create scopes by making conventions. We do that to comprehend, organize and communicate experience. As Piaget wrote, “the mind organizes the world, by organizing itself”.
— And truth? What is truth if not correspondence with reality?
We avoid the word “truth”. It bears too strong connotations of the old paradigm.
In polyscopy, communication is conceived simply as an act of sharing scopes. You give me a scope, and my challenge is to ‘look through’ it and see what you see. Can I see that your way of looking too matches the experience in a sufficient degree? If I succeed, the communication is considered successful.
Truth and meaning are, by this convention, placed where they have always been, according to the state of the art in science and philosophy – in the eyes of the beholder!
Please be mindful of this subtlety: We are not required to represent the experience exactly. Our concepts and theories, or scopes, are considered to be no more than ways of looking at things. They are mnemonic devices, ways to engage our higher cognitive faculties toward simplifying our complex realities in ways that work.
— What exactly does that mean?
On the one hand, our models need to be sufficiently consistent with the data. On the other hand, they need to fulfill certain key roles in our lives and society, such as empowering us to understand them. And to act in synchrony, and in ways that are appropriate to the situation.
One shares a scope in the manner of saying “See if you can see this situation or theme also in this way”. “See if this new way of looking may reveal something essential about this matter, which you may have ignored while looking at it in the old way.”
Our scopes or ways of looking at things become instruments of abstraction, similar to angles of looking or projection planes – which allow us to simplify a complex matter, by looking at it in a certain specified way.
— It seems to me – and please tell me if that’s the case – that you’ve been all along creating a foundation on which knowledge can be federated?
Yes, you are once again completely right! The approach to knowledge I’ve just outlined enables us to federate insights across disciplines, domains of interests and cultural traditions.
Think about the Tower of Babel.
Our “realities” have been divided by our differences in language and worldview. When, however, we go back to human experience, and make that the substance of knowledge, then we become capable of perceiving that different people or traditions may have had the same or similar experiences – while giving given them different names. We can then create a common name for them – by making a convention.
— So a methodology creation gives us a whole new start? On the other side of the mirror we can once again be creative in the manner in which the founding fathers of science were? And also in whole other new ways?
The most exciting side of our proposal is the vast creative frontier that knowledge federation as an approach to knowledge makes available to academic exploration and development.
— You said at the beginning of our conversation that the purpose of knowledge federation is to make people informed. What exactly does that mean? Do you have a convention for that as well?
Polyscopy uses the keyword gestalt to model the intuitive notion “informed”. To be informed, we need to have a gestalt that is appropriate to the situation or task at hand.
– What is an appropriate gestalt?
It is an interpretation of a situation that points to correct action. “Our house is on fire” is a textbook example.
The gestalt stands for a certain kind of knowing. You may know the temperatures and the CO2 levels in all the rooms. But it’s only when you know that your house is on fire that you really know what it all means. And what is to be done.
— The keyword “gestalt” is adopted from psychology of perception?
That keyword is there to remind us – just as the above image does – that multiple interpretations of our sensory data are possible. That a phenomenon or situation may be interpreted in more than one way. And that our mind has a tendency to hold on to one of them, and resist others.
— We may consider polyscopy as a way to depart from the narrow frame by illuminating the whole from all sides – and form correct gestalts?
That’s right. Polyscopy is a flexible searchlight, which can be pointed at will.
— We, contemporary people, may be caught up in a dysfunctional gestalt?
The risk is real, isn’t it?
— The bus with candle headlights is an example of a gestalt?
It is. Imagine us taking a night ride in a bus with candle headlights, through uncharted terrain, at accelerating speed…
— You said that polyscopy generalizes the usual approach to knowledge in the sciences. Does that mean that it’s possible to prove a gestalt?
It does. Only instead of the word “proof”, which is laden with old-paradigm connotations, we prefer to use the keyword justification.
The justification of a gestalt is made possible by the methodological approach to knowledge.
— Would you like to demonstrate how polyscopy generalizes the usual approach in the sciences, by using the Modernity ideogram as example?
Think of Galilei’s formula, v = gt.
Science allowed us to use maths and say, precisely, how two entities are related to one another. But why use only maths?
Think of the Modernity ideogram as something akin to a mathematical formula – which specifies an abstract relationship between two unnamed entities, represented by the bus and its headlights. The ideograms (which are, just as everything else is in our knowledge federation prototype, only a placeholder for a variety of techniques that can be developed) are capable of representing any kind of relationship, even an ethical or emotional one! Our technical keyword for an abstract relationship is pattern. We’ve adopted this keyword from Gregory Bateson – who was one of the founders of cybernetics, especially interested in transdisciplinary epistemology and methods.
Given a pattern, we can interpret its main entities, here concretely the bus and its headlights, as representing respectively our civilization or culture, and our knowledge work, as we have seen. This is similar to interpreting the mathematical variables in Galilei’s formula, by assigning to them the physical quantities velocity and time. The result is a precise claim – about the relationship between our civilization and our handling of knowledge; and about the overall situation that resulted.
The methodology then allows us to justify that claim, that the relationship between our culture and its knowledge work is indeed as claimed, by referring to various forms of experience. In that way we become capable of creating reliable shared insights also in “soft” areas of interest – including culture, information, values, happiness, religion, beauty…
— I like the idea of knowledge federation as an architecture-like academic field and real-life praxis. Clearly our information has been growing beyond bounds, and that whole enormous structure is beginning to crumble under its weight. In what way can knowledge federation make a difference? At the beginning of our conversation you motivated knowledge federation by talking about Vannevar Bush and the information overload. But you haven’t yet explained the solution. You haven’t yet talked about that new structure or architecture of information and knowledge, which will radically improve the accessibility and the use and usefulness of knowledge. How would the proposed knowledge federation prototype handle that general issue, of “information glut”, or of cognitive overload?
By combining abstraction with structured organization.
A basic technical insight here is that exponential growth of the amount of data can be countered by logarithmic access to data – which requires a suitable combination of abstraction and structured organization.
You’ll notice that our knowledge federation prototype gives us the methods that are needed for such a combination. Polyscopy is the methodology needed for abstraction. Knowledge federation is the collection of social processes by which structured knowledge can be maintained.
— What about the structure itself? Is the way in which knowledge is to be organized also federated?
It is. Our proposal is based on some of the basic insights that were developed in computer science.
There is an interesting analogy between our contemporary situation with information, and the circumstances that half a century ago led to the advent of high-level computer programming, and of significant parts of academic computer science. Back in the 1950s, namely, when the first commercial computers reached the market, ambitious software projects were undertaken – which often resulted in chaos. Thousands of lines of tangled up “spaghetti code” were created, which the programmers were unable to understand and correct.
A systemic solution was found, in the creation of “programming methodologies”.
— We now have a similar problem with information? And with knowledge?
— Is this where the idea to create a methodology came from?
It is. The idea was all around me, and I only needed to pick it up. My academic department is, namely, located in the Ole Johan Dahl’s building of the University of Oslo. Dahl, together with Kristen Nygaard, created an especially successful computer programming methodology called object orientation, or object oriented methodology.
— What can knowledge work learn from object orientation?
This analogy is a very rich and fertile one, and we cannot explore it in depth and give it justice here. So let’s only illustrate it, by putting into the spotlight an issue that has so far not even been recognized as an issue.
One can do computer programming by using any programming language, including the machine language of the computer – which is just a sequence of zeros and ones. The challenge that the designers of the programming methodologies took upon themselves, and which Dahl and Nygaard handled especially well, was to create conceptual and technical tools that would enable the programmers – and indeed even coerce them – to write well-structured, easily comprehensible and modifiable code. Notice this subtle but central point: The creators of the programming methodology considered themselves accountable, for giving the global community of computer programmers suitable tools – the ones that will make a difference between everyone‘s work ending up in a spaghetti-like mess, or resulting in clear and reusable modules, which not only solve the problem at hand, but can be plugged in into any other piece of code and do the job!
Apply this thinking to knowledge work – and you’ll see something spectacular, which (yes, this too) alone suffices to make a case for knowledge federation.
— The academia must make itself accountable for the way information and knowledge are structured?
Yes, indeed! It is still common to assume that the traditional books are articles are the solution. But are they really?
What if they are the reason why everyone’s best ideas are now dozing off on the shelfs of academic libraries, unable to connect with one another, and to impact our collective awareness?
— And the remedy? The solution? Is object orientation pointing to a solution of this problem as well?
It is. In object orientation the main conceptual and technical tool for structuring programs is called “object”, that’s where the name “object orientation” of course comes from. An object is a a conceptual tool that enables abstraction and structuring. This means that when we look at the program, we don’t see all the code. We see only a comprehensible big picture – structured in terms of a handful of suitably created objects. We can then zoom in on any of those objects, and see how they are implemented. This gives us the logarithmic access to details – which allows us to deal with the exponential growth of the volume.
— I presume that the knowledge federation prototype provides an information structuring concept?
It does. Our prototype structuring template is called information holon.
The keyword holon is adopted from Arthur Koestler, who used it to denote something that is both a whole in itself, and a part in a larger whole.
In the above metaphorical image, information holon is shown as of a circle on top of a square – which together compose an “i”, for “information”.
— So the information holon too is a result of knowledge federation. Are there other points of reference that need to be federated, when we talk about this centrally important creative challenge?
There are, of course. We should not forget to mention Doug Engelbart’s fundamental contributions. I’ll represent them here by only one. Engelbart created the Open Hyperdocument System – and implemented it in the NLS system that was shown in his 1968 demo – as a way to enable the evolution of structured multimedia documents – beyond the conventional books and articles. Notice that common toolkits that implement the traditional document formats, such as the Word or the Powerpoint, are a straitjacket…
This is yet another point where Doug was a half century ahead of his time.
— What are the advantages of the information holon – compared to our conventional way of structuring knowledge?
In object orientation, the abstraction is achieved by “hiding implementation and exporting function”. You’ll understand how the information holon does that if you imagine the circle or the dot as exactly that – as a functional element in a larger whole. I have the habit of imagining the circle as “the point of it all”, or a gestalt. But it’s more accurate to think of it as a prototype – i.e. as anything that encapsulates a wealth of knowledge and makes it alive in a given context. Another good way to think about the circle is to imagine it as a contemporary counterpart to the traditional myths, customs, mores, taboos – by which the wisdom of generations were placed into the education of children and into everyone’s daily routine, without even revealing their roots and their presence.
Conceived in this way, knowledge can be organized as a holarchy – where each circle becomes the data, or part of a square, in a higher-order holon.
— Knowledge federation may then be understood as what is needed to maintain the holarchy? To keep knowledge consistent and organized?
Ditto! It’s the “social life of information” that maintains the holarchy.
— How are polyscopy and knowledge federation related to each other?
Polyscopy is conceived as a methodology that enables abstraction. It enables us to turn multiple insights into higher-level results, which are characteristically gestalts. Without such abstraction, structuring is of course impossible.
Knowledge federation is conceived as the corresponding social process.
As soon as we allow multiple views to co-exist, on different levels of generality or abstraction, knowledge federation – as a way to maintain relative coherence, compatibility, trustworthiness, relevance… of those views – becomes necessary. The attitude of the “objective observer” and academic peer reviews will no longer work.
A healthy human mind maintains the coherence and the priority structure of its sensory data, views and gestalts naturally. Knowledge federation performs the same function in our collective mind. Our proposal, you’ll recall, is for the knowledge federation transdiscipline as a way to foster and evolve that centrally important collective capability.
— It is also true that knowledge federation requires polyscopy, isn’t it?
When our task is to create knowledge ‘on demand’ (and not only by pursuing traditional disciplinary interests), then we must create insights about the most relevant themes as well as we are able, and continue improving them, by federating other relevant insights and creating new ones. The traditional scientific method will not enable us to do that. A general-purpose methodology is what we need.
— Knowledge federation makes it possible to use the information technology to create the ‘lightbulb’?
The analogy between what’s just been said and the creation of the lightbulb is rather obvious, isn’t it? When creating the lightbulb, one would begin from the purpose to be served, and the relevant physical principles and technology.
Knowledge federation shows how knowledge work and information and information can be handled in that same way. How the socio-technical lightbulb can be created.
— You mentioned several times Peccei’s conclusion that “it is absolutely essential to find a way to change course”. I can see the abstract idea, how knowledge federation may help find a new course by creating or by being the ‘headlights’. But I don’t see how this can realistically happen, in a down-to-earth and concrete way. How can knowledge federation help us find a way to change course?
All of Knowledge Federation dot Org is the answer. And especially the prototype portfolio provided on Federation through Applications. An exploration will show how the ideas we’ve just introduced can lead to a sweeping and comprehensive change.
Can you give me a tour of this frontier? Would you like to show me around?
Gladly – but some other time. That tour of our prototype portfolio could be a suitagble theme for a whole other long conversation.
For now I propose that we focus on a subrange of prototypes that you probably wouldn’t even notice, when browsing through our portfolio on Federation through Applications – although they might alone be sufficient to make a case for knowledge federation. The reason why you probably wouldn’t notice them is that they deal with an unknown issue. It’s yet another one of our five core insights, which when federated lead us toward a sweeping, Enlightenment-like change, and which motivate the Holotopia prototype. The insight is called narrow frame.
So why don’t we focus on the narrow frame insight – and how this approach may help handle it. This will be a natural continuation of this conversation about the foundations for creating truth and meaning – which is, as I mentioned, of central interest both for understanding our academic and societal condition, and for completing our case for knowledge federation.
— Please go ahead.
On Knowledge Federation dot Org we motivated this interest, our work on federating the narrow frame insight and developing remedies, by quoting Aurelio Peccei. Peccei did answer the how question, by observing that cultural change is the key.
Here, however, I would like to dedicate this discussion to the memory of Arne Næss, Norway’s philosopher and a revered friend. Arne is credited for coining the term “deep ecology”, and developing supporting insights and theory. “Næss averred that while western environmental groups of the early post-war period had raised public awareness of the environmental issues of the time, they had largely failed to have insight into and address what he argued were the underlying cultural and philosophical background to these problems. Naess believed that the environmental crisis of the twentieth century had arisen due to certain unspoken philosophical presuppositions and attitudes within modern western developed societies which remained unacknowledged”, says Wikipedia.
— Would you like to give a brief intuitive explanation of narrow frame, before federating further ideas of giants? As you did with those other insights?
The point is that owing to a historical accident, we’ve ended up looking at the world in a way that was way too narrow to hold most of the culture. Consequences have been destructive. When we, however, create the way we look at the world, we can not only remedy the problem – we can indeed do incomparably better than our traditional ancestors did, in developing a wonderful human culture.
— What was the historical accident you are talking about?
The key to understanding what happened to us is to see that that science acquired the role of “the grand revelator of Modern Western Culture”, as Benjamin Lee Whorf insightfully observed, “without intending to”. At the time when the scientific disciplines were taking shape, the church and the tradition had the prerogative of telling people what to believe in, and how to behave. And as the image of Galilei in house arrest might suggest, they held onto that prerogative most firmly.
It was an unintended consequence of the successes of science that, as Werner Heisenberg insightfully observed, “[c]onfidence in the scientific method and in rational thinking replaced all other safeguards of the human mind”.
But however unintended this may have been – there we are! Science is in a much larger role than what science was originally conceived for.
In the cultural traditions, the role of information was not to give people an exact picture of reality; to explain to them how really the world originated, what exactly are the thunder and the lightening and so on. The traditional myths, customs, values, mores – all this had a variety of deeper roles, which science was not really prepared to take over.
— Science has helped us see that women can’t fly on broomsticks.
There can be no doubt that science helped us rid ourselves of a variety of prejudices and illusions. Science brought the evolution of knowledge an enormously large step forward.
But we’ve also thrown out the baby with the bathwater! We did not re-implement the functions that the traditional mores and myths and customs and values had. That was simply nobody’s business! So we simply threw them away!
— Your proposal to academia is to step into that role consciously?
That’s right. Knowledge federation is just a concrete way to operationalize that timely step.
— You adopted this keyword, narrow frame, from Werner Heisenberg?
On Knowledge Federation dot Org, we federate the narrow frame insight (in Federation through Stories) by telling a vignette about Werner Heisenberg and his 1958 monograph “Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science”. Heisenberg, as you might recall, was – second to Einstein – a giant of modern science. He got his Nobel Prize “for the creation of quantum mechanics”, which he did while he was still in his twenties.
I should perhaps mention that it was this Heisenberg’s book that made me, 25 years ago, see the larger than life creative opportunity we are talking about. And to dedicate myself so fully to its manifestation.
In Federation through Stories we quoted the following passage, where Heisenberg made the narrow frame insight clear:
[T]he nineteenth century developed an extremely rigid frame for natural science which formed not only science but also the general outlook of great masses of people. This frame was supported by the fundamental concepts of classical physics, space, time, matter and causality; the concept of reality applied to the things or events that we could perceive by our senses or that could be observed by means of the refined tools that technical science had provided. Matter was the primary reality. The progress of science was pictured as a crusade of conquest into the material world. Utility was the watchword of the time.
On the other hand, this frame was so narrow and rigid that it was difficult to find a place in it for many concepts of our language that had always belonged to its very substance, for instance, the concepts of mind, of the human soul or of life. Mind could be introduced into the general picture only as a kind of mirror of the material world; and when one studied the properties of this mirror in the science of psychology, the scientists were always tempted — if I may carry the comparison further — to pay more attention to its mechanical than to its optical properties. Even there one tried to apply the concepts of classical physics, primarily that of causality. In the same way life was to be explained as a physical and chemical process, governed by natural laws, completely determined by causality. Darwin’s concept of evolution provided ample evidence for this interpretation. It was especially difficult to find in this framework room for those parts of reality that had been the object of the traditional religion and seemed now more or less only imaginary. Therefore, in those European countries in which one was wont to follow the ideas up to their extreme consequences, an open hostility of science toward religion developed, and even in the other countries there was an increasing tendency toward indifference toward such questions; only the ethical values of the Christian religion were excepted from this trend, at least for the time being. Confidence in the scientific method and in rational thinking replaced all other safeguards of the human mind.
— Why did you consider Heisenberg’s book and insight to be so important?
Because Heisenberg’s main point, his ostensible reason for writing Physics and Philosophy, was that the results in the 20th century physics amounted to a rigorous disproof of the narrow frame.
— Would you like to give a short summary of that disproof?
Physicists found out that small particles of matter manifested patterns of behavior that were incompatible with the classical or mechanistic worldview. It has turned out that even the physical reality cannot be understood by thinking as we do when we try to understand a mechanism.
— In Federation through Stories you quoted the opening paragraph of Benjamin Lee Whorf’s “Language, Mind and Reality”. Whorf’s “culture-trammelled understanding” has roughly the same meaning as Heisenberg’s “narrow frame”, doesn’t it?
— In “Language, Mind and Reality” Whorf observed that science reached “a frontier”, where a decision about its future course needed to be made. If science remained confined to “culture-trammelled understanding”, he warned, it would become “a plagiarist of its own past”. Would you like to comment?
— Why did Whorf need only “half an eye” to see that – already in 1942?
Whorf was a daring, visionary thinker.
But his insight was also a result of his own research. The themes that Whorf worked on might at first glance seem esoteric; he could be telling us about some idiosyncrasies of the Hopi grammar. But what he was really saying was “These people have an entirely different language than we do. Therefore the way they see the world is entirely different.”
— That means that any fixed concepts and method, any fixed way of looking at the world, will constitute a narrow frame?
Quite a few thinkers have pointed out that we can no longer just simply inherit the way we look at the world.
Marshall McLuhan expressed the same insight succinctly, when he observed: “We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein saw the limiting aspect of language in his own way – by observing how communication works in practice, and drawing conclusions.
When at the beginning of Reflections Wittgenstein lets us listen to a mason giving instructions to his helper, in a minimal but clear language, what he’s saying to the philosophers, and to all of us, is that our words acquire meaning in a specific practical situation or “language game”. When we take them out of that context, and use them to philosophize about the afterlife, the existence of God and the origin of the universe – our words no longer have their meaning. And neither does our discourse!
— That means that we cannot have an unreserved faith in reason, after all?
Quite a few scientists and philosophers have come to that conclusion.
Quantum physics is known to contradict common sense. In his essay “Uncommon Sense”, Robert Oppenheimer gave an explanation that suggested itself – namely that our language and our common sense are results of our and our culture’s experience. And that we have no rational reason to expect that our common sense will be consistent with the phenomena that we don’t have in experience – such as the behavior of small particles of matter.
That doesn’t mean that the reason is useless, of course, on the contrary! It only means that we must use our reason in an informed way.
— How does polyscopy handle the narrow frame issue?
By allowing for defining concepts and methods by convention.
The process of creating scopes or ways of looking is called scope design.
Scope design liberates the way we look at the world. We become capable of creating new ways of looking at the world. And new ways of understanding the world.
— Keywords are concepts defined by convention?
Yes, they are. We distinguish the keywords from their traditional counterparts by writing them in italics.
— I am allured by the prospect of “a great cultural revival”. Do you have any examples of scope design, and perhaps some federated insights, which can illustrate how exactly a Renaissance-like change can realistically happen? How exactly can polyscopy and scope design help?
That’s exactly what Knowledge Federation dot Org is really all about! The entire website can be read as an answer to the question you are asking.
I propose to begin exploring this answer by looking at our definition of culture
You’ll notice right away that however the word “culture” may be defined within the old paradigm, the definition is expected to pinpoint what culture “really is”. Or in other words – to reify the cultural and the social-systemic status quo!
— The reification and hence also reproduction of the ‘candle’ is hardwired in the very way in which we use language?
This traditional way of defining concepts has also another large defect. In the book manuscript Information Must Be Designed, which is available online, the definition of culture is motivated by discussing Zygmunt Bauman’s book “Culture as Praxis”. In this book, Bauman surveys a broad variety of historical definitions of culture, and concludes that it is impossible to reconcile them. We don’t really know what culture is! Not a good starting point, if our goal is develop culture as praxis (informed practice). And begin “a great cultural revival”.
— How did you define culture?
As “cultivation of wholeness“.
— Both cultivation and wholeness are custom-defined keywords?
Yes, they are.
Wholeness is the quality shared by a healthy organism and a well-functioning mechanism – where all the essential pieces are in place, and function in synchrony and synergy. If even a screw is lacking from a mechanism, the whole thing may be dysfunctional. So there is a sharp distinction between that which is whole and that which is not.
Wholeness in an organism has an additional quality; it doesn’t have a limit. We can always be healthier, stronger, smarter, more resilient to disease, and more thriving.
— You are really laying a foundation for systemic innovation in culture, aren’t you?
Yes, indeed! The idea is to assume a conscious responsibility for the wholeness of culture. And in that way for wholeness on all levels – our personal wholeness, our societal wholeness, the wholeness of nature – and the wholeness of it all. It is in the very nature of wholeness that when anything is not whole, everything is!
— And cultivation?
The word cultivation is defined by analogy with planting and watering a seed. That’s in accord with the etymology of the word “culture”.
The purpose of this metaphor is to emphasize subtle, long-term influences on our wholeness, which when we think in the naively ‘scientific’ way tend to be ignored. Indeed, nothing in a seed suggests that it should be planted and watered. And even when we water regularly – we don’t really see any difference until some time has gone by. We are entirely dependent upon the cultural heritage, upon the experience of others, or in a word – upon information.
There is, however, a large difference between the seed in the metaphor and our real-life challenge: The seed, the water and the apple tree that grows as a result are all physical things, which can be seen. The human cultivation, however, is a subtle outcome of subtle, soft or cultural ‘watering’. What role might the stories we tell our children have? What difference do good music and poetry make? This definition sets the stage for understanding and developing culture in a completely new way!
— You are attributing a purpose to culture?
Yes, but only to culture. Notice that this means “let’s consider culture as cultivation of wholeness”. We are creating an aspect of culture, a way to look at culture. A precise way to talk about culture.
Since culture is our own abstraction, defined by making a convention, we can now theorize further. We can ask “What does our culture need as information – to be able to function as a culture“? That question is the theme of the book manuscript I’ve just mentioned.
— The ‘bus’ has been assigned a destination? And the ‘headlights’, or information, have been defined as a role or a function within the ‘bus’? We can now develop our work with information consciously, to serve the assigned purpose or purposes?
A large area of the knowledge federation creative frontier originates by this very act, of giving a purpose to information and culture. In the research article and the blog post Design Epistemology, where these epistemological ideas have been made public, we developed an analogy with the emergence of modern art. When the artists liberated themselves from “representing reality”, by imitating “the technique of old masters”, they became empowered to be creative in the very way in which they practiced their work. An outburst of creative directions resulted. Our point was to show that the conditions are ripe for a similar development in our work with knowledge.
— We can now continue this process of building our culture from the foundations up, by asking “What kind of information our culture needs, to be able to function as a culture?” Polyscopy definition formulates concrete criteria, by which the way in which we valuate and handle information and knowledge is refined?
One of them, the perspective criterion, is defined with the help of the above Perspective ideogram.
The explanatory text is that every whole (represented by the traditional Yin-Yang ideogram) has a visible and a hidden side. Information must illuminate what is obscure or hidden, so that we may see the whole in correct shape and proportions.
It’s easy to see that scope design, informed by the criteria such as the perspective, is what we need to be able to cultivate wholeness. No fixed way of looking will do.
— Have you thought of illuminating information itself in that way? Does information have a hidden side, which needs to be illuminated?
It does. We called it implicit information.
The core point – relative to our present focus, on “reviving culture” – is expressed by the above ideogram, which we used to motivate our definition of visual literacy – which is one of our prototypes listed in Federation through Applications. We defined implicit information as the information that is implicit in not only images, but also in the tone of voice, gestures, architecture… The above image (where the implicit information faces the explicit information in a direct duel, and wins) is intended to show that while we’ve been focused on the verbal, black and white and ‘square’ explicit information (in academia, in legislature, in our ethical sensibilities) – we have been culturally dominated by implicit information, which has largely remained ignored.
I should perhaps only mention that when proposing our polyscopy-based visual literacy definition for the International Visual Literacy Association, we took the opportunity to develop a theoretical basis for defining any concept X in a way that reveals the essence and the purpose of X in a larger context, instead of trying to pinpoint exactly what X is and what it’s not. The vignette behind this definition, in the context of visual literacy as a movement, is significant, because it once again depicts our entire project in a fractal-like manner (by both being an important detail, and displaying a pattern that generates the whole thing).
— What is visual literacy?
We defined it as “literacy that corresponds to implicit information“.
The importance of this literacy reaches beyond our understanding of how our contemporary cultural reproduction might have been hijacked. What are the implicit messages given to us by the media? What impact does the implicit information conveyed to us by advertising – that half-trillion-dollars-a-year global industry – on our cultural evolution?
The implicit information is also essential for understanding how the traditional cultural reproduction could have numerous implicit ways of communicating culturally important messages, not the least in religion – which we’ve ignored, by focusing on the factual, world view-related explicit messages. In what ways does implicit information cultivate our wholeness? How is it used to take us away from wholeness?
The implicit information is essential for understanding the challenge we now have – to federate what we know explicitly by weaving it into implicit messages. And to claim back our culture, by claiming the production of implicit information as well.
— I’ve learned at school that people invented religion because they were unable to explain the natural phenomena.
Yes, that’s exactly the point! We may now see not only religion, but also art and literature and, well, everything else – as results of federation of the insights of generations, woven into the tissues of everyday living, to guide people to wholeness.
By focusing on explicit information, on factual explanations of how the universe originated and how it works, we’ve misinterpreted and devalued our cultural heritage.
You can now see already how this way of looking at information may serve the “great cultural revival”; how it may help us recover our cultural heritage, and build whole new one, by reclaiming and rebuilding, or federating, implicit information.
— Let us focus on something that your readers will easily identify with. In An Intuitive Introduction to Systemic Thinking you talk about attention as a resource; about the computer games that misuse the attention of our children; and about the media informing that grabs our attention, and keeps it focused on “infotainment”. How could the ideas you’ve just described be applied to this issue? How could they make a difference?
As one of our concept definition prototypes, we defined also the keyword addiction.
The traditional usage of language has left us a handful of things that are identified as addictions, such as the opiates and the gambling. The traditional culture has given us also the corresponding ethical taboos and legal instruments, to control those addictions.
Addictions are known to be good business, aren’t they? What will hinder us from creating numerous new addictions – with the help of technology?
The prototype I am talking about, our definition of addiction, points to a way to remedy this problem – by defining addiction as a pattern.
The longer story is in the literature provided in Federation through Applications. For our purpose here, it is sufficient to think of addiction as a way to fool human perception. Our emotions, that something is attractive or repulsive, were created by evolution to help us favor the choices that lead to wholeness. But in civilization this may no longer work. It has obviously become possible to fool our perception, and create things that feel right – yet take us away from wholeness!
— Would you like to share an example?
— I imagined you would have a more interesting example?
You’ll find a broad collection of examples in the article, and you’ll easily spot more of them by yourself. My favorite is pseudoawareness, which is defined as “addiction to information“. Awareness is a vital human need; so evolution naturally gave us a thirst for awareness. What if our information may quench this thirst by telling us engaging images and stories – without giving us the kind of awareness we need?
— I looked at the videotaped conversation with Neil Postman, which you shared earlier. Postman claimed that to give information a purpose, we need a story or a narrative, which tells us “where we are coming from, where we are headed, and what we are supposed to do while we are here”. “Analytical science cannot give us that”, Postman observed. Can polyscopy do that?
It can, of course. By liberating communication as I’ve just outlined, we open up the possibility to tell stories, use images… The vignettes and ideograms are, once again, only placeholders for a variety of techniques that can be developed.
— Have you created such a story? How does your story answer the questions that Postman was posing, about the nature of our contemporary situation?
The Modernity ideogram was originally created for exactly that purpose. I drew the ideogram to define two keywords – tradition and design.
By convention, tradition and design are two alternative ways in which a culture can evolve. In a tradition, people rely on what’s been inherited from the past, and perhaps modify it by making incremental semi-random changes, and exposing them to the test of time. Design means taking conscious responsibility for wholeness on all levels. The point of this definition is that design must be in place when tradition cannot be relied on. Notice that tradition and design are two stable points, two laminar flows in cultural evolution.
Turbulence arises at the point of transition.
— These two keywords allow us to answer Postman’s questions?
A traditional culture is where we are coming from. A designing culture is where we are headed.
Where we are – and what we are to do while we are here – is pointed to by the Modernity ideogram. We are no longer traditional. And we are not yet designing. We are, in other words, in an unstable point of transition. What we are to do, while here, is to continue and complete this precarious phase of our evolution.
It is, of course, ironic that, in the “Age of Information”, it is our information that has fallen behind!
— Has this definition of design in some way been federated?
It has – in several ways, indeed. One of them was by showing that it’s consistent with insights in sociology. Another one was to present this definition to the academic design community.
The story that resulted is complex and interesting, and profoundly relevant to what we’ve been talking about. It shows how a whole traditional academic field, and praxis, may be designed to suit new conditions. How a purpose may be attributed to an already existing field. The story is told in An Academic Foundation for Design and Design as an Academic Foundation – and I let you explore it on your own.
— I’ve been thinking about “a great cultural revival”; about the necessity to “find a way to change course”; and about your promise, that knowledge federation will reverse our present understanding of core human and cultural issues. Do you have examples of such reversals – which could illustrate how a great cultural revival could realistically happen?
Federation through Images concludes with two examples, whose purpose is to provide exactly what you are asking for. Those two patterns, and corresponding ideograms, the convenience paradox and the power structure, show how some of our strongest motivating drives – our pursuit of happiness, and of freedom or of social justice – may be thoroughly redirected, when illuminated by suitable information.
In each case a radical change of gestalt is achieved by using information to illuminate something that remained invisible to our uninformed perception. Something that the naked eye naturally fails to see. Various forms of propaganda, both obvious and subtle, have of course vastly exacerbated this problem.
I propose that we take up the power structure result first. It continues in a natural way our earlier theme, systemic innovation. We considered that theme from the point of view of information technology, innovation and cybernetics. The power structure theory weaves together the related insights from the social sciences.
This theme may be approached in several other ways as well. For instance by asking “Now that we are living in a democracy – have we reached the quest of the age-old human quest, for a free and just society? Or is there still a large insight, pointing to a revolutionary change, that may surprise us?”
— You wrote that the power structure models the intuitive ideas of a power holder, and of the oppressor or the enemy?
That’s right. Here too we have our traditional way of conceiving the “enemy”, the oppressor or the threat to freedom, and to social justice. Could there be another way of perceiving this centrally important issue, which would reveal to us something that this way of looking doesn’t reveal?
The power structure pattern lets us perceive the power holder, or the potential enemy, as a structure – combining power interests, our information and our ideas about the world, and wholeness on all levels, including our own state of health or wellbeing.
— How does this reverse the direction of our pursuit of freedom?
The power structure pattern shows how the spontaneous evolution of societal structures, when it’s oriented by “free competition” or by the survival of the fittest, leads to malignant, cancer-like societal power structures – which disrupt our wholeness.
And which our society’s ‘immune system’ fails to recognize, and treats them as its own healthy tissues and organs.
— In what way is the power structure insight federated?
To see the power structure, it suffices to federate insights and results from the social sciences – such as Zygmunt Bauman’s above observation, about how cruelty’s nature changed in modernity. How evil can be done by a system, comprising just rational people, as a result of just everyone “doing their job”.
To see the subtle links between the named three visible entities; and to also understand how and why spontaneously growing structures can develop seemingly purposeful and intelligent behavior, one would need to include also some of the most basic insights from artificial intelligence, artificial life and stochastic optimization. It is an especially attractive side of the power structure conception of power and freedom that we can only see the complete picture – see our political enemy, recognize the social-systemic cancer – when we combine some of the most basic insights from the humanities, with the basic insights from those three technical fields. When this is completely understood, it already gives us a sufficient motivation for knowledge federation. We don’t need to look further.
— To see the enemy, and to let democracy evolve further, transdisciplinary federation must be in place?
— In what way does this redirect our pursuit of freedom?
By showing us how we may be ‘chained’ by subtle, symbolic, cultural means. By showing us a way in which we are still unfree, without knowing that.
And by showing us ‘the enemy’. We thought the enemy was out there. But really the enemy is us! The power structure theory profoundly changes the name of the (conventional political) game – from “us against them” to “all of us – against the power structure“.
I offer this as an answer to the obvious question – how can the emerging Enlightenment-like change happen without armed revolutions? The answer is that it will be a revolution in awareness. A revolution that will co-opt the powerful, by changing the very nature of the political game.
The convenience paradox is pointing in that same direction.
— This result is also telling us something essential about the nature of our social-systemic evolution?
Something most essential. It tells us how our evolution can assume a pathological, cancer-like character. And how the power structure, this social-systemic and cultural ‘cancer’, may remain unrecognized by our culture’s present ‘immune system’, which is perceiving it and treating it as its own normal and healthy tissues.
— Is there a real-life example of a power structure you’d like to mention?
Yes, there is.
At the 2005 yearly conference of The European Association for the History of Medicine and Health (EAHMH), we asked the question “can healthcare develop cancer”? Our presentation was titled “Healthcare as a Power Structure”. We used our methodology to illuminate a shadow side of our existing way of caring for health – namely the factors that may misguide its evolution to suit the various power interests involved, and not the health of the people. This way of evolving would then maximize the cost of healthcare, and the number of people needing treatment.
— How did you federate that idea?
By telling vignettes about two giants or pioneers in that realm of issues, Werner Kollath and Weston Price.
Kollath, as a medical researcher, observed that the modern medicine developed as a way to combat the infectious diseases. That the largest and growing contemporary threats to health tend to be results of our lifestyle. And that this new situation requires a completely new approach to healthcare.
— Kollath pioneered systemic innovation in medicine?
He did. His project, which he branded “political hygiene”, bears many similarities to knowledge federation. If you click here you’ll be able to read the vignette about Werner Kollath, which is a fractal image that reflects many of the developments and issues we have been talking about, as they are manifested in that specific core domain of interest – our caring for health.
— You also offered a methodological contribution to the EAHMH community.
We offered polyscopy (knowledge federation was not there yet) as a way to extend the historiographic approach that is common in this community, by developing general principles, or specifically laws of change results.
— You created a prototype that was developing political hygiene further?
We did. It’s listed on Federation through Applications. In collaboration with Gunnar Tellnes – who was then a professor at the University of Oslo medical school, and also the President of the European Public Health Association, we developed a project that operationalized political hygiene in several ways. One of them was the so-called KommuneWiki – by which local communities were empowered to develop awareness of these issues, through technology-enabled dialogs, and to develop remedies. This project was developed with the Nature Culture Health organization, which Gunnar developed in Norway, to develop the synergies between nature, culture and health – which were threatened by the power structure.
— The convenience paradox pattern shows how the pursuit of happiness may be redirected?
I usually explain its message by interpreting the ideogram. I want to do something else here – give you the main point first! Let me begin by telling you what this is really all about.
A centrally important insight – which is the worst-kept secret of the great spiritual traditions – is that living, that being human, can feel incomparably better than what we believe. Incomparably more rewarding than what we’ve experienced. The reason is what I’ve mentioned a moment ago – that it is impossible to step into another person’s shoes and feel what he or she feels.
And yet when the federation homework has been completed, we see not only how this insight emerges as common in a large number of healing, self-development and spiritual traditions – but that also the ways to that experience, which they developed, have so much in common that it is more appropriate to talk about just one single way!
— How is that possible? I mean – that something so important has not yet really been communicated?
The communication challenge I’ve just mentioned is only one of the reasons. Another reason is that directing people’s pursuit of happiness has been such a powerful instrument of the power structure, that any truth that existed about that naturally got perverted. You’ll notice that in Galilei’s time people generally took it for granted that the truest and most significant happiness (or misfortune) are to be found in the afterlife. And that in our time it’s the advertising that’s taken over the torch. They are of course only reinforcing our naive value and pursuit – where what feels attractive is automatically considered to be the cause or source of happiness. As “what life is rally all about”.
— In what way is the Convenience Paradox ideogram signficant?
The human in the ideogram is about to choose which direction to follow. The direction down, which feels more convenient, becomes more and more inconvenient when pursued, and vice versa.
— Can you name an instance of the convenience paradox?
Once again heroin. Or physical exercise, on the positive side. Or any other form of self-cultivation or self-improvement. What once was difficult becomes easy, because we’ve developed ways to cope with it. We’ve become stronger. That’s the very archetype of culture and of cultivation, isn’t it?
In justification of this result a number of far more interesting instances are drawn, from a variety of sources and traditions – such as psychoanalysis, Alexander technique, Buddhism and yoga. It is shown that a number of cultural traditions share the convenience paradox as their core insight – and that they provided us a variety of ways to overcome it. By cultivating ourselves, and our world.
— So the message, the gestalt, is that convenience is a deceptive value?
It is. And that to meaningfully pursue happiness (I prefer to frame the goal as wholeness), we need to illuminate the way with suitable information.
Our pursuits, in other words, need to be illuminated by right information, if they should take us to a desirable goal. But isn’t it also what the bus with candle headlights has been telling us all along?
— I am imagining that the first book of Knowledge Federation Trilogy, the Liberation book, somehow belongs to this same theme? That it conveys the same gestalt?
That’s really what the Liberation book is about. The Buddha’s (or the Buddhadasa’s) core insight is federated by showing that it’s an essential piece in that most wonderful puzzle.
— The intended effect of the Liberation book is to illuminate the way to a radically better human condition?
It is. It is not difficult to see what needs to be illuminated and why: We observe things as pleasant, and naturally assume that they are worth pursuing, that they indeed give us pleasure. What we don’t see is how they affect our own condition – in the long run.
— Something still seems to be missing in all this. The examples you’ve just mentioned are all gestalts, or insights. Don’t we need to weave those insights into our daily life as well, by hardcoding them into our systems and systemic practices. Education, for example. Do you have any prototypes that show how the work with the whole person may be brought into education? How can human development become part of our common educational practice? In what way can the insights from healing and spiritual traditions, about human cultivation, be woven into our education?
I may highlight one of the least conspicuous of those prototypes, a one you probably wouldn’t notice while browsing through Federation through Applications – the Movement and Qi educational prototype. It’s an educational project where polyscopy/knowledge federation are used to place a variety of techniques for developing, what we may call “the human quality” (which Peccei singled out as the task of primary importance) into the academic repertoire of activities. It is indeed remarkable – especially in the light of what’s now known about the embodied aspects of knowledge and of knowledge work, that the academia has virtually no provisions for working with the human material itself. And, of course that the heritage of the cultural traditions in which such knowledge has been developed, both the ancient and the new ones, has not really yet found a place in the academia.
— That’s a consequence of the narrow frame, isn’t it?
So why should we have only book knowledge? Why not “improve the improvers” (to use Engelbart’s slogan) by working with the body and mind directly?
— Why this title, “Movement and Qi”?
Movement and qi appear in this course project as keywords. We relied on the ideas I’ve just described to place the work with movement seamlessly into the academic scheme of things.
Movement include all one might do to improve one’s own condition, such as meditation, nutrition or yoga. Qi is adapted from the Oriental traditions, by focusing solely on the phenomenological side of this concept. Qi, simply, enables us to produce a high-level phenomenological explanation of how those various techniques work. It enables us to develop a very simple model of human wholeness – which, perhaps surprisingly, enables us to understand the effects of a broad variety of techniques, by seeing them as different ways of working on a same core issue.
— You also developed a promotion or ‘marketing’ strategy for the Movement and Qi course?
We created six posters, each of which reflects a distinct aspect of work with movement, and of this course. On one of them movement is introduced as a language, in which various traditions coded a wealth of insights. The course is then offered as a way to learn that language, and to be able to understand and preserve that heritage, and to benefit from it.
Our marketing strategy was to post a couple of those posters, randomly selected, at various bulletin boards around the campus. The idea was to suggest – also to the students and the faculty who would not participate in the Movement and Qi class, that there’s more to movement than meets the eye. You’ll find a link to those posters on Federation through Applications.
— I would like to challenge you now to issue – in the light of what’s been said – a clear call to action. What exactly is it that you are proposing. What exactly is the exact nature of that “larger than life creative opportunity” your challenge your readers to grasp, with the help of that bus with candle headlights image? How shall we best honor that opportunity, how shall we realize its potential?
Our call to action, which we are extending to our academic colleagues on Knowledge Federation dot Org, is for academic self-organization. We are proposing that the university should adopt a new purpose – to be our society’s guiding light. And to self-organize as it may best serve this purpose – by taking due advantage of the available knowledge of knowledge, and of new information technology. To evolve our collective mind. To open up the possibilities for young people to engage in daring and creative ways into their and our society’s future. To create – and become – the ‘lightbulb’; instead of being forced to reproduce the ‘candle’, and to be the ‘candle’.
We are offering our prototype, and the institutionalization of knowledge federation, as a concretization of that proposal.
As a prelude to this self-organization, we are proposing a “conversation”, or technically a dialog, based on our prototype and our case presentation.
— The “larger than life creative opportunity” is for the academia to become creative in the very ways in which it practices its profession? By creating its own systemic solutions and practices – and then extending that manner of evolving to our society?
— You also show that your proposal follows by federating knowledge. That if we’ll “stand on the shoulders of giants” today, as Newton did in his time, we would see that as our natural future course, in which evolution of knowledge and knowledge work now needs to continue?
That’s also right.
In a way we are just reissuing the call to action that Erich Jantsch made fifty years ago.
Jantsch too federated this call to action, by organizing an expert team’s effort to draw a line between our civilization’s condition, and a condition where the diagnosed negative trends are resolved and normal evolutionary course or “progress” is resumed. Already back then they found that the university would have to play a pivotal, all-important role. And that it would have to adapt to this role, by modifying its own self-perception and structure.
We are, however, not only echoing their proposal, but also operationalizing it further, by providing a complete, real-life prototype of knowledge federation as the new organ in the academic organism – which is suitable for carrying out the academic and societal self-renewal. We are proposing knowledge federation as an academic field and real-life praxis. Our prototype is complete; it includes everything that defines an academic field, from epistemological and methodological foundations to social organization and a deployment strategy, as we have seen.
— The website Knowledge Federation dot Org both displays that prototype, and presents a case for adopting knowledge federation as an academic field and real-life praxis?
Yes, our website now serves those two related roles. Our intention is to make our proposal clear and complete. To make it ready for implementation.
— In what way is your case for knowledge federation argued?
Knowledge Federation dot Org is conceived as a description of a new paradigm in knowledge work. And as a paradigm proposal. New paradigms have been identified as a way in which the methodological evolution in the sciences progresses. Why not engender a similar evolutionary quantum leap in knowledge work at large?
To bring this idea down to earth and make it understandable, we explained our proposal by developing an analogy with the emergence of science at the dawn of Enlightenment.
On the whole, our proposal to the academia is to develop an approach to knowledge or paradigm, which extends science and builds on science, and provides us, the contemporary people and society, the kind of knowledge we most urgently need.
— How does one make a case for a paradigm?
Thomas Kuhn defined a new paradigm as
- a new way to conceive a domain of interest, which
- resolves the reported anomalies and
- opens up a new frontier to research
On KnowledgeFederation.org we carefully elaborate those three points. We conclude by describing a proof of concept application.
— The website’s four detailed modules elaborate on those points – and at the same illustrate knowledge federation by demonstrating some of its techniques?
That’s right. Each detail module is an illustration of one or several knowledge federation techniques. We found it natural to explain knowledge federation by using knowledge federation.
— By “a new way to conceive a domain of interest” – you mean a new way of conceiving information and knowledge in general, and the academic knowledge work in particular?
Instead of considering the purpose of information and knowledge to be to provide an exact and objective description of reality, information and knowledge are considered as human-made things, which need to fulfil certain essential roles in contemporary people’s lives and society. Our goal then becomes to adapt the ways information and knowledge are handled – both on the supply and on the demand side – to the core purposes that need to be served. Or in other words, to the systemic roles that information and knowledge need to fulfil in contemporary people’s lives and society.
In knowledge federation information and knowledge are considered the lifeblood of the modern society – and handled accordingly.
— You are proposing an informed approach to information?
We are. It’s the natural first step toward an informed society. And toward guided evolution of society.
— And the anomalies? What are they?
They are reported problems or transformative insights that remained unresolved or ignored, because they failed to fit into the prevailing paradigm.
The website focuses on two kinds of anomalies: the fundamental (in Federation through Images) and the pragmatic ones (in Federation through Stories).
— In Federation through Images you use ideograms to describe how the new way of conceiving information and knowledge, or in other words knowledge federation, can be used to resolve the fundamental anomalies?
We felt that a cartoon-like summary of knowledge federation‘s philosophical underpinnings would create a nice contrast with the characteristically verbose manner of speaking in traditional philosophy.
— How would you describe the main fundamental anomaly that knowledge federation has undertaken to resolve?
To point to it, we adapted Werner Heisenberg’s keyword, the narrow frame. The anomaly is that the rational causal explanations – which to the founding fathers of the Enlightenment served as the new Archimedean point, which allowed them to reconfigure the world – can no longer fulfil that role.
We have seen that the traditional “scientific method” has been found unsuitable for that role (see also Return to Reason).
And why the traditional philosophical reflection would not do either.
“Someone, indeed, might even raise the question whether, without something of this illusion, anything really great can be achieved in the realm of philosophical thought”, Einstein wrote in the continuation of the above observation, “but we do not wish to ask this question.”
— You answer Einstein’s rhetorical question positively?
We do. We show how philosophy (understood as the pursuit of this fundamental interest) may continue evolving by simply federating the relevant insights, by evolving prototypes, defined by convention.
— In Federation through Images you showed how a general-purpose scientific method may be developed within the proposed approach?
We do. We showed how a method closely similar to “scientific method” – but applicable to any subject, on any level of generality, and hence applicable according to the contemporary needs of people and society – can be developed by federating the state of the art epistemological and methodological insights in science and philosophy.
What appeared to our ancestors as the way to objectively describe reality, namely the understanding how the nature works, by understanding its mechanisms, by adhering to the language and the methods of the traditional scientific disciplines, proved to be a narrow frame – an overly restrictive foundation for creating truth and meaning, which was too narrow to hold significant parts of our cultural heritage, and to let them evolve further.
— This approach to knowledge enabled our ancestors to see that women can’t fly on broomsticks.
It did. It rescued us from so many myths and prejudices, and enabled us to advance our understanding and our knowledge enormously.
But we have also thrown out the baby with the bath water.
— Are there any other fundamental anomalies you would like to mention.
Yes – the one we are calling socialised reality. What was once considered as the reality is – in the light of contemporary science and philosophy – seen as a result of our socialisation. The correspondence with reality itself – which has for centuries guided our quest of knowledge – proved to be a shaky foundation for truth and meaning.
The result is that our knowledge work is presently an enormous machinery which is busy spinning its wheels, producing enormous volumes of new material. But the resulting knowledge, the overall construction, neither has a solid foundation nor a structure that would hold it from crumbling, and make it really useful to people. Our knowledge keeps growing in volume. But there is no real evolution. And no underlying direction or meaning either.
— Knowledge federation is proposed as what we now need as architecture?
— And the solution? What solution to those fundamental anomalies are offered within the knowledge federation prototype?
We showed that a new Archimedean point can be found in consistent reliance on truth by convention – and hence without recourse to the correspondence theory of truth. This allows us to liberate ourselves from socialized reality.
We showed how a completely general and generic approach to truth and meaning can be developed by federating the available insights, such as Einstein’s “epistemological credo”. The resulting approach or paradigm liberates information and knowledge from their confinement to the language and interests of traditional disciplines – and allows us to create insights according to people’s needs. Exactly as knowledge federation requires.
— You showed how knowledge federation can be given a rigorous academic foundation and methodology? And thereby also an academic standing?
And we also showed – perhaps surprisingly – how knowledge federation can serve as new foundation for creating truth and meaning.
By developing a methodology prototype, and organising a transdiscipline around it to update it continuously, we create a foundation for social creation of truth and meaning which both has a stated purpose, and where the way this purpose is served reflects the available knowledge.
The result is a modernized and evolving approach to knowledge.
— The lightbulb headlights?
It’s a way to complete our modernisation – and then move beyond, toward new insights, new cultural possibilities, whole new ways of being and evolving.
— In that way you show that knowledge federation is the natural continuation of that age-old fundamental quest?
— Am I guessing what the third book in Knowledge Federation Trilogy will be about?
The tentative title is “Knowledge Federation”. The tentative subtitle is “Philosophy for the Third Millennium”.
— In Federation through Stories you discuss the pragmatic anomalies in our present pursuit of knowledge. And you use vignettes as the technique of choice. What are vignettes?
They are interesting or “sticky” people and situation stories, which, as parables, point to a general phenomenon that deserves attention. The vignette is a common technique in media reporting.
— You use vignettes to explain the ideas of giants?
We do. What, for example, made Bourdieu discover and formulate his “theory of practice”? Instead of talking about their theories, this approach gives us a direct access to the insights of giants.
— What is the main pragmatic anomaly you are pointing to by telling vignettes?
It’s the other side of the coin, a consequence of what I’ve just mentioned – that our knowledge and knowledge work are lacking a purpose, a foundation and a structure. That it operates by just adding more volume.
The pragmatic anomaly this leads to is that the most interesting and relevant insights may be ignored.
One could even say that exceptionally relevant insights tend to be ignored – because they no longer fit into the prevailing paradigm. Because they offer us a way to change it.
But to change the paradigm – we first of all need a way to construct meaning. To put things together into new units of meaning.
— Is that the reason why in Federation through Stories you chose those specific four giants, and insights, to represent by vignettes?
It is. In Federation through Stories we continue to develop the analogy we promised in Knowledge Federation dot Org’s two opening paragraphs, by showing ignored insights that are leading us toward a new Enlightenment-like change.
Our four examples correspond, roughly, to the four aspects of the historical Enlightenment or Renaissance:
- The emergence of science (a new epistemology, or a new way of looking at the world)
- Emergence of the printing press (a technological enabler of a quantum leap in communication)
- Innovation and Industrial Revolution (liberation from strife and toil; radical improvement in efficiency and effectiveness of labor)
- Renaissance (liberation of creativity; new values; blossoming of the arts and the humans)
Taken together, those four vignettes then establish a parallel between our situation and the situation in Galilei’s time – which is pointed to by Knowledge Federation dot Org’s two opening paragraphs.
Another reason is that each of the four stories was roughly – and sometimes exactly – a half-century old, at the point of writing. The fact that they’ve been ignored for so long allows us to reproduce the “Galilei in house arrest, a century after Copernicus” effect.
— In Federation through Stories you introduced a new metaphorical image, the elephant. What does that metaphor stand for? Another gestalt?
That’s right. The elephant represents the emerging Enlightenment-like change, the larger societal paradigm.
By federating this insight, we both give the due relevance and visibility to the insights of those four giants, and we give them impact, by providing a guiding vision that can motivate the related change.
— Why that metaphor? Why the elephant?
I began to use it while telling the vignette about Doug Engelbart. It was a way to say that whenever Doug was presenting, or being celebrated – which happened quite a few times in the Silicon Valley’s recent history, during the two last two decades of Doug’s life – something huge and spectacular was present in the room, without being seen.
— The paradigm?
Yes, the paradigm.
Engelbart wanted to show people the elephant (a new paradigm in knowledge work). But they “just didn’t get it” – and he ended up with only a little mouse in his hand (to his credit).
— And the elephant – what difference will it make?
The answer is another interpretation of that metaphor – the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Engelbart was not the only giant who saw the elephant in his own way, and remaining ignored. Quite a few others also saw it, from the point of view of their profession or discipline. It is only when we put their insights together into a larger picture, that we can see that they indeed fit most beautifully together. That those giants were all really talking about one and the same same big thing.
So it is only when we regain that basic capability, to put specific insights together into a larger development or vision – that we can appreciate the relevance of specific insights and contributions of giants.
— So Federation through Stories not only describes the anomalies, but also resolves them?
— I see that there’s a small elephant within the larger one in your image. Does the small elephant represent knowledge federation?
I bought the hand-carved puzzle, the actual elephant, at the market near La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, having spotted the serendipity. Our design team turned it into an ideogram. So yes, the small elephant represents knowledge federation quite beautifully. It is both an elephant in its own right (a paradigm in knowledge work) – and also a piece in the larger elephant (the social and cultural paradigm). The former paradigm must be in place, if we should be able to put that larger one together.
— Federation through Applications is a description of the emerging creative and specifically academic frontier, which knowledge federation as the new approach to knowledge or new paradigm opens up to exploration?
— Let’s have a quick tour.
Before we look at the prototypes, let me mention two characteristics of our prototype portfolio, which are most exciting to observe, but too tedious to demonstrate in detail. The first is that it composes a complete model of a transdiscipline – which includes everything from the fundamental premises to technology and social organization. And even a deployment strategy. The second is its fractal-like structure. All the prototypes follow logically from a single principle.
— Represented by the bus with candle headlights?
Here you may think of systemic innovation as a specific way to be creative. And in particular, as a way in which our society can take advantage, real advantage, of the new information technology. We may not need to distinguish between systemic innovation and knowledge federation here, let’s just say that there is a new way to be creative at play. We see whatever we are updating or creating, whatever we are working with, as a functional building blocks in a larger whole. What can we do with, for example, tourism, so that both to the people traveling, to the travel industry and to our society it may serve incomparably better than the tourism which evolved as a way to maximize the revenue.
— And now to me seems most interesting part of your proposal – the the depth and the variety of creative possibilities, on the new frontier. How would you describe them?
There are methodological prototypes – which show how knowledge federation opens up to ways of being creative in the manner of Galilei, Newton and other founding fathers of science – by creating new methods.
The systemic prototypes invite us to be creative in the manner of Nikola Tesla and Wright brothers – and reinventing the institutionalized practices and institutions, as the ‘mega-mechanisms’ that turn our daily work into socially useful effects. Here we see completely new solutions for academic communication, public informing, education, health, tourism… The new information and communication technology, as a “super new nervous system to upgrade our collective social organisms”, plays of course the key, enabler role.
Then there are completely new ways to be creative – by finding suitable ways to intervene. Ways to make a difference. Knowledge – conceived, by design epistemology, as an agency within our collective social organisms – now naturally seeks and finds ways to make a difference. That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? So you may now review our whole portfolio, and see it as a compendium of interventions, ways to make a difference. As a collection of trimtabs. You may indeed see our entire proposal as a re-evolutionary strategic move, as an intervention. There are quite a few prototypes whose role is specifically to enable intervention. As elements in a strategy. For example the evangelizing prototypes.
— You said that the last detailed module, Federation through Conversations introduces a proof of concept application. What is that application?
The ‘headlights’ have been created and described. It’s time to see them in action. Can they give us the information we now lack and vitally need? Can they make “a difference that makes a difference” (to echo Gregory Bateson’s catchy phrase); can they provide us what information must provide?
Can knowledge federation help us “change course”?
— There are several questions that may now need to be answered by showing knowledge federation in action. One of them is whether, and how, can knowledge federation help us “change course”? Help us begin a “great cultural revival”?
Our application answers that question as well.
That’s what’s suggested in the opening paragraph of Federation through Conversations. In the section “Large change made easy” that follows, we let Donella Meadows point out that “the mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise” is the most impactful way to intervene in a system. So the overall idea is to show how that seemingly daunting challenge, to begin a great cultural revival, may be made easy by federating a single insight, which reverses some of the beliefs that are presently the very foundation of our cultural paradigm.
— Then there’s also another question I was wondering about: What if Ronald Reagan was right? Perhaps the free competition is really our best guide?
Our application sheds some clear light on that question as well.
The question is most central to our purpose. If Reagan was right – then the academia‘s evolution should be entirely something else! OK, we might still need some “basic research” to keep the innovation and the industry expanding. But other than that – perhaps the academia should itself become a service to the industry? Perhaps the universities too should be forced to prove their value on the financial market?
— And supposing that Reagan was wrong – then the question is why don’t we take up self-organization? What prevents us, in academia, from becoming our society’s guiding light? Why do we really insist that the traditional disciplines are the only way one can be an academic? The academia has organized itself according to the same market principles as the rest of our society, by adopting “academic productivity” as fitness criterion, and “publish or perish” as our culture’s ecology. Why? How well is this serving us? What else may be possible?
That question too is answered in our proposed conversation – by showing something about the manner in which we’ve been evolving, which most of us are still unaware of.
The other side of the same coin is the question that Erich Jantsch considered as the key question – namely the question of values. The question of the way in which we are presenting ourselves to the evolution of our species. If the academia should take a guiding role regarding that evolutionary task – then what should the new academic values be? In what way should we be present in our society’s evolution?
— You have a single piece of information that addresses all those questions?
(END of ALTERNATIVE)
— Federation through Conversations first introduces the notion of the dialog, and then describes The Paradigm Strategy poster. The whole thing is an invitation to a dialog, based on that poster. Is that the solution you are pointing to?
That’s half of the solution, shown on the left-hand side of The Paradigm Strategy poster. The left-hand side both empowers us to diagnose the roots of the problem, what we must now understand and change in our communication; and it already guides us to solution, by organizing us to communicate differently.
The other half of the solution is the action that follows, which is orchestrated on the right-hand side of the poster.
— The poster features a collection of knowledge federation techniques, and we may look at some of them in a moment. But for now, I’d like to challenge you to convince me that what we are talking about is genuinely a new paradigm in communication. Not just more of the same. I see that there’s a point in the middle of the poster, which, I presume, is your circle or ‘dot on the i’, representing a gestalt. Then there are two patterns leading to that insight. And then there’s the dialog. Give us the big picture, what this poster is expected to convey – in terms of those three basic keywords.
The poster sheds the light there where light is due – it’s showing us the way. Which is, of course, our civilization’s evolutionary course. The gestalt is a key course-changing insight. We are calling it the Key Point. It’s the insight that leads to a change of course.
The insight, in this case, is that we have missed to give our information a purpose – in spite of all the evidence that we must adapt it to its purposes – because it has been serving a purpose we haven’t yet been sufficiently aware of: It’s been the instrument of our socialization.
— What exactly does that mean?
That’s what the left-hand side of the poster is meant to explain. We need to follow the threads, to combine the insights of giants to see what exactly that means.
But for now, let’s just point to the analogy we’ve been developing, with Galilei in house arrest. We tend to believe that those people back then were just weird. How could insist on Geocentricity for so long? We are about to see that this is what our socialization does to us. And that we are not free of it either. The point of this new communication is to change the way we communicate – so that we may see what we failed to see so far. And become capable of reversing our socialization. Of changing the paradigm.
— Those two patterns are expected to elucidate the main point?
They are – but only when used as they are intended to be used, namely within a dialog.
You’ll recall that a pattern in polyscopy is a way of looking at data; and ultimately at experience. Can you look also in this way – and see something that may have remained hidden earlier?
The Wiener’s paradox pattern invites us to see that the traditional academic communication may not have any impact on public opinion and policy – when what’s communicated challenges the prevailing paradigm.
— Galilei is kept in house arrest by the very way in which we communicate?
Yes, that’s exactly the point.
— What is it in the Wiener’s paradox pattern that challenges the prevailing paradigm?
As we have seen, both Wiener and Jantsch presented evidence to challenge the centrally important meme, which has been the subject of our conversation, and of the KnowledgeFederation.org website – namely that we don’t need knowledge to function and evolve as culture and as society. That the “free competition” on the market is not only sufficient, but indeed our only reliable guide. Isn’t that how the nature does it?
— You are saying that we are again facing a popular myth, a “universal theory” which keeps the prevailing social order in check.
— And the second pattern, the homo ludens?
It illuminates the nature of our socialization. The way of looking it offers is a way to see a shadow side of our own biological and social nature, something we haven’t been aware of while considering ourselves as the homo sapiens. Yes, we are the homo sapiens. But we are also the homo ludens.
Now few people would argue against what I’m about to say next: That the academia‘s social purpose is to guide us along the homo sapiens evolutionary path. And that what Socrates did at the beginning of academia‘s story, as we’ve seen it a moment ago – was exactly to depart from the homo ludens approach to knowledge. Socrates would not let himself be intimidated by people’s status and political interests. It was the love of wisdom that prevailed. Could a similar advent be in store for us today?
This sets the stage for an academic dialog, and puts us, the academia, into the spotlight of the contemporary civilizational entanglement. We believed it was the Wall Street bankers. And Donald Trump. Now we can see that it’s really us that are holding the key to evolution.
— What exactly is the dialog?
It’s what Socrates was doing – and what David Bohm and others developed later. Bohm considered it to be the key to our civilizational entanglement.
The dialog is a genuinely different approach to communication – which allows us to avoid exactly what we need to avoid, the negative consequences of our socialization.
When someone challenges our culture’s cherished belief (such as that free competition is the solution; or that academic publishing does work as communication), we feel righteous contempt. We want to put that guy into his place. The point of the dialog is to watch ourselves. To see those reactions as just – a product of socialization. Bohm called this “proprioception”, or self-observation.
— The poster is structured as an information holon? I see a square and a circle. In fact I see two squares, to be exact.
Yes, you are absolutely right.
The left-hand side of the poster is a holon, composed by combining a collection of knowledge federation techniques, which leads to the central insight represented by the circle in the middle.
— Which is?
We call it the Key Point. It’s the insight that leads to “a great cultural revival”. In this case it’s an insight that can lead the academia take its leadership role, and guide our society toward a great cultural revival.
— I see that most of the giants and vignettes (such as Doug Engelbart, Werner Heisenberg and Aurelio Peccei) are not represented on the poster. And that some of our strongest arguments, such as the epistemology argument we have just seen, have not been included. Why?
The poster is conceived as a minimalist knowledge federation prototype, sufficient to serve that timely role.
The poster instead focuses on the socio-cultural, ethical and evolutionary aspects of our subject matter. Most of the federated insights are core results in the humanities.
The just mentioned giants are, however, implicitly present on the poster, and in the conversations the poster is intended to ignite – because the poster operationalizes the specific ways in which, as they saw it, our key challenges that remained after them needed to be handled.
Peccei saw “human development” as the goal that must be given the highest priority. That he dictated to his secretary from a hospital bed on March 14, 1984, the day he passed away. What insight could make us so interested in human development? What insight may foster the next ethical and cultural revolution?
The key challenge that Engelbart left us was bootstrapping – to create new ways to communicate, and new systemic solutions for communication, with our own bodies and minds. The Paradigm Strategy poster is exactly what Engelbart was asking for – an invitation to academia to initiate bootstrapping. And a knowledge federation–based argument, showing why academia now really must do that.
In this way The Paradigm Strategy poster also concludes our case for knowledge federation, which we are presenting to academia.
— The poster was originally presented to the Systemic Design research community, at the RSD 2017 conference in Oslo?
The audience was already an elect one – the RSD community are designers who have already recognized (what we call) systemic innovation as what we must do to have a future. Just take a look at this opening paragraph of the invitation to their this year’s conference in Chicago, titled “Systems Change + Design for Governance”:
There is an emerging concern to address the pragmatics of large-scale social system change across all contexts. Organizations can no longer go it alone if they want to achieve scaled and sustainable impact. Building, activating, and amplifying capacity to co-design and co-produce with real stakeholders has always been a challenging commitment. Successful system change models are still emerging across different sectors, and their results are simultaneously challenged by massive global trends. Achieving systems-level transformation requires activating, cultivating and galvanizing networks—technological, infrastructural, and social—that support new collaborative activities, processes, and mindsets.
The question was – could we still tell these people something they don’t already know? Even something game-changing?
— And the answer?
The answer is a surprise. Let’s develop it piecemeal, as we go along.
— The Paradigm Strategy poster is conceived as a square, and the circle in its middle is the point of it all, the gestalt?
That’s right. The point in the middle what we are calling the Key Point.
The poster is envisioned as a collective walk to a metaphorical mountain top, represented by the circle in the middle, from which the Key Point is clearly visible. And from where both the old and the emerging paradigm can be clearly seen and understood.
The left-hand side of the poster enables us to climb the metaphorical mountain. The right-hand side of the poster choreographs the descent from the mountain – the transition into the emerging paradigm.
— What is the Key Point?
It’s what I called meme X in Ode to Self-Organization – Part One. That blog post tells a fictional story, how we got sustainable and began to thrive again, from a point in distant future. The key was to see meme X, and what an evolutionary predicament it has been to us so far. And then find a way to liberate ourselves from it, and to evolve culturally and socially in a different way.
— What is meme X?
The meme is to cultural evolution as the gene is (according to the Darwin’s theory extended by contemporary research) to biological evolution. It’s what enables and drives cultural evolution.
The concrete meme the poster is focusing on, let’s here also call it meme X, is the ethics of egoism – backed by the myth, or the “simple-minded theory” as Norbert Wiener framed it, that the magic of free competition or “the invisible hand” of the market will turn our narrowly conceived self-serving acts into the greatest common good.
The meme X is the contemporary counterpart to the “Scriptures” in Galilei’s trial. It’s what is driving our cultural and societal evolution. Or better said – what is keeping it in check.
— The Paradigm Strategy poster is at the same time a showcase of knowledge federation techniques. There is a gestalt in the middle, preceded by two patterns, four threads and twelve vignettes. And on the right-hand side we have two design patterns, and five prototypes.
That’s right. As I mentioned earlier, those techniques have been adapted from the repertoire of relevant domains of interest or 20th century thinkers, such as Gregory Bateson, Vannevar Bush, and Christopher Alexander.
— The first pattern is theWiener’s paradox, which we’ve already talked about. Perhaps you may here summarize it briefly?
Norbert Wiener observed – and partly also federated – that meme X is a popular and politically-motivated myth, which is contrary to evidence. But this, and also other related academic insights, remained without effect – because, as Wiener also observed in the same breath, our society’s communication is broken.
— This was already a message to the Systemic Design researchers, wasn’t it? It’s saying that the academic business as usual – even when it’s delivering most vital and transformative messages – may not have the intended effect?
If you look at our poster, you’ll see that it’s really an invitation to bootstrap. To depart from the academic business as usual by beginning to create with our own bodies, even in a minimal way, new institutional structures. And new ways to communicate.
— And homo ludens? What is the role of that pattern in the poster?
It explains what keeps us from bootstrapping. It points to the evolutionary nature of the key obstacle we now must learn to overcome.
— What is “homo ludens”?
Homo Ludens is a title of an old book, written by Johan Huizinga, a Dutch culture historian. Huizinga saw something huge and essential. But he had to fit his insight into the old paradigm, in order to communicate it. So he diluted it, and framed it (according to Wikipedia) as a discussion of “the possibility that play is the primary formative element in human culture”. “Homo ludens” literally means “man the player” or “man the game player”.
— How would you explain what Huizinga saw? Or rather – how do you use the homo ludens keyword?
As an alternative way to see ourselves.
We are accustomed to perceiving ourselves as the homo sapiens. The homo ludens pattern points to a radical alternative. It is true that we are biologically equipped to evolve as the homo sapiens. But we are also biologically equipped to evolve as homo ludens.
To truly understand our cultural and social-systemic evolution – and our contemporary moment in it, and our key challenge – we need to see it as an interplay of those two ways of evolving. We need to see both sides.
— The first thread, which connects vignettes about Norbert Wiener, Erich Jantsch and Ronald Reagan, is what we’ve talked about a moment ago, isn’t it? You used this pattern to define the Wiener’s paradox.
And if we take into account the fractal-like nature of paradigms – then you may also see the homo ludens pattern and the overall Key Point already by inspecting that single thread.
I was alluding to the homo ludens pattern with my remarks about Reagan, when I said that he was in no position to argue with the giants of science about the nature of our societal evolution. That he was trained as a media artist, literally as a role player. If you now revisit what was told there, you’ll see that it’s also an argument showing that in our existing cultural conditions, where communication is conceived as merely broadcasting – the homo ludens has a clear competitive advantage over the homo sapiens!
— The homo sapiens relies on knowledge to make choices, and to steer his evolution. What does the homo ludens rely on?
The homo ludens simplifies the complex reality by learning his various roles, and most importantly his profession, as one would learn the rules of a game. And by playing in it competitively, to advance his own position in the game.
A homo ludens is not interested in the larger, systemic role of his work and profession – because for him they play a different role. They provide a stable framework in which his professional and private games are played. Or what Anthony Giddens called “ontological security”.
— And the second thread? If the first one was already enough to see the Wiener’s paradox – what’s the role of the second one?
It answers a question that remained open after the first thread.
What if Reagan was right? Perhaps the free competition and the market are our best evolutionary option? Perhaps we really don’t need to use knowledge to steer into the future?
The second thread points to the kind of evolution has social Darwinism has given us.
— Which is?
The third vignette in the second thread, which is a paraphrase of piece of history that David Graeber recounted in his book Debt, is alone sufficient to answer that question.
The story is summarized on Federation through Conversations, and I suggest that we take a break in this conversation, and that you read it on your own. You’ll see that it has all the key elements that need to be there, beautifully woven together: How King Alexander created a competitively superior ‘business model’, which combined “financial innovation” with war, turning free people into slaves, destruction of spirituality and culture, and massive suffering.
And in case one should think that this is only history, we commented also on Joel Bakan’s “The Corporation” – where it is shown that our contemporary social-systemic evolution has in its innermost nature remained unchanged.
— Graeber’s book is really about the history of money, isn’t it?
One might see it in that way. But Graeber saw in that history more than most of us would. He gave his book that title, Debt, because it shows, mostly between the lines, how something that in the Pre-industrial communities and cultures played a lead role, became “adiaphorized” (to use Zygmunt ‘s keyword). How a core ethical category became just business. Just money.
— Graeber appears as last in a thread which includes also Noam Chomsky and Yuval Noah Harari. What roles do they play?
They complete a minimalistic snapshot of the nature of our social-systemic and cultural evolution, and our contemporary moment in it, by weaving in some important subtleties.
Chomsky appears in it in his MIT academic role, as a linguist, to say that the human languages have not been perfected as instruments of communication, but for worldview sharing. Harari then comes in to explain that it was this uniquely human capacity, to create a shared story and consider it as reality, that gave our species the competitive advantage over other species.
We humans would stand no chance in a one-to-one combat against the claws and teeth of some of the larger carnivores. It is the systems we create that have given us the advantage. It’s socialization that made us the dominant species on the planet.
The Graeber vignette comes last to show us that this homo ludens style of evolving also came at a cost. It has given us social-systemic structures that were the most aggressive ones – and in every other way vastly suboptimal.
How much longer can this way of evolving continue? We have conquered not only other species, but also other cultures. The human population is no longer a collection of tribes, fighting for land and domination. It’s the “global village” we are now living in. It’s the “spaceship Earth” that we must learn how to steer.
— I’ve always been wondering, if one day we will finally make an end to war – in what way exactly would that happen?
Now you might be getting an idea.
— And the bottom part of The Paradigm Strategy Poster? How does it continue the story?
By asking the next obvious question: Why do we put up with all this? What really prevents us from perceiving “the systems in which we live and work” as something human-made, which determines the quality of our lives and the effects of our work. Why do we allow them to enslave us, when we can collaboratively and consciously create them, and be free?
— And? The answer?
It’s in the nature of our socialization.
I’ve already mentioned socialized reality as one of the key insights that are leading us toward cultural revival. So far we’ve focused on the fundamental side of this insight. Here we are about to see its social-psychological side.
— The third thread, the one in the lower-left corner, represents that?
That thread is really just a warmup – although, just as the case was above, it’s already sufficient to see the homo ludens pattern. This part is not yet told on Federation through Conversations, and I’ll just give you a very brief summary here.
Nietzsche, just as Wiener did earlier, expressed the main point succinctly – and you’ll find it at the bottom of An Intuitive Introduction to Systemic Thinking. Just think that already in Nietzsche’s time, the modernity could be seen as overwhelming us with impressions, making us numb, unable to comprehend and act! Paul Ehrlich then steps in after Nietzsche to say, in the second vignette, that within a generation or two, our world became so complex that it’s in effect impenetrable.
How do we cope?
We resort to “ontological security”, observed Giddens!
— We simplify the complex reality by focusing on our life project?
Indeed we do!
— We compensate for the lack of knowledge by evolving as homo ludens?
— I believe I can see now the subtler message you are adding here to your case for adopting knowledge federation as an academic field and a real-life praxis. The academia‘s social role is to guide us along the homo sapiens evolutionary path, isn’t it? But that’s not what’s been going on?
Yes, that’s exactly our point.
— What’s the last thread then about?
It presents the deepest and most interesting side of our theme – the social psychology of socialization. It explains the inner workings of the homo ludens pattern. It explains in what way exactly social game-play can take the place of knowledge.
The explanation is already contained in the middle vignette, about Pierre Bourdieu in Algeria. It’s one of my favorite – not only because Bourdieu’s “theory of practice” is exactly the missing link, an explanation of the mechanics of socialization; but also because it shows the power of the vignette. The vignette allows us to begin to comprehend a complex theory, by allowing us to step into Bourdieu’s shoes and see what he saw.
— Bourdieu went to Algeria at the beginning of his career, as a sociologist?
No, not exactly. He was sent to Algeria as an army recruit, during the Algerian war of independence from France. At that point Bourdieu was a graduate of the École normale supérieure (the world’s most selective and prestigious educational institution) in philosophy – which meant that he could choose his vocation. In Algeria he became a sociologist – because he had an epiphany. He became a sociologist in the same way in which Engelbart became an IT inventor. And around the same time.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that both got caught by the same evolutionary stream.
— What exactly did Bourdieu see?
He saw how power morphed: from being contained in censorship, prison and war – to becoming “symbolic”. And hence invisible to people!
Right after the bloody war – in which Bourdieu witnessed all imaginable abuses of human rights and dignity, and also reported about them – Bourdieu saw the Algerian society yield to a whole new enemy, and to a whole new kind of power. By undergoing modernization.
Bourdieu was reminded of his own experiences of disempowerment and injustice – when as an exceptionally talented working class kid from the province he moved to Paris to continue his education.
Bourdieu’s theory of practice explains how we the people can be socialized to behave and even think in a certain way, without anyone being aware of a subtle yet centrally important power play that is taking place.
— Bourdieu explained how contemporary Galileis could be held in house arrest, without anyone being physically arrested?
And how all of us can be ‘in house arrest’, without even noticing. The theory of practice explains how power escaped our conventional understanding of power, and the checks and balances of democracy.
— Bourdieu is one of the giants whose ideas are leading us to a societal paradigm shift?
He is – but only if Bourdieu’s ideas manage to escape their own prison, sociology!
As the things are now, you’ll become familiar with Bourdieu’s work only if you are a sociology student. And even then you’ll learn them as one of the theories, which often contradict one another (you don’t get to publish a paper by agreeing with somebody else’s theory). You’ll be asked to answer questions about Bourdieu’s theories; but you’ll never be asked to make the changes in our conventional order of things, which they are pointing to.
— Was Bourdieu aware of that problem?
He was. Bourdieu was a champion of knowledge federation (see this article).
Toward the end of his career – while holding the Sociology Chair on Collège de France – Bourdieu changed from being an academic purist, to becoming an activist against the neoliberal ideology (a French documentary about this is called “Sociology is a Combat Sport”).
— So Bourdieu too took up bootstrapping?
— That thread begins with Odin the horse vignette? I found it rather strange that a horse would appear among the giants of science…
The Odin the Horse vignette is a real-life story about the turf behavior of Icelandic horses. Odin is the leader of a small herd of mares. The vignette lets us witness a several days-long step by step process by which an experienced farmer is introducing New Horse into the herd, against Odin who is physically pushing him out. This story is, of course, intended to serve as a parable, pointing to the turf behavior of people.
The farmer had, of course, good systemic reasons for bringing in New Horse. Odin was getting old. He didn’t really need all those mares. The reproduction, and evolution, needed to continue. But Odin didn’t really think about this matter in that way. We may indeed wonder if he did think at all! Didn’t he just consider the physical turf and those mares as his turf and mares. And New Horse as a threat and an intruder.
— What is the role of that vignette in the thread?
Its role is to “change the game”, so to speak. Even Bourdieu still saw “the 1%” as the winners in the societal power struggle, and the rest of us as losers. This vignette gives us a way to see winning and losing in a completely new light – namely that that too is part of our socialization. To see that those roles, the winners and the losers, too are defined by the ‘rules of the game’, not by real reality.
— The ultimate point is to see how the ‘winners’ too can be losers?
And to change the name of the political game all the way from “us against them” to all of us against negative socialization. And against a self-destructive cultural and social order of things, to which this way of thinking and acting and evolving has been leading us.
— We are back to the power structure pattern, aren’t we?
In a way we are. The homo ludens is a simplified version, which does not require the nuances of polyscopy. It’s a version that is tuned for a half-hour presentation to an academic audience.
— This vignette is pointing out that we the people too have a primitive, animalistic side – which drives our turf behavior?
Yes, that’s exactly its point. That point is a core insight reaching us from the world spiritual traditions. Odin has a divine side – but he just doesn’t know that!
Our human turf behavior is incomparably more nuanced and subtle than the turf behavior of Icelandic horses – just as much as our culture and our society are more complex than theirs. Therefore it may be difficult to see the simple picture, a very simple possibility – that the force that shapes our society’s “field” or “game” (as Bourdieu called it) could be just that, just an atavistic ego dynamic. Not our “real” interests.
— And Damasio – what is his role in this thread?
The last vignette, the one about Antonio Damasio, explains the cognitive mechanism that makes socialization possible. The message, essential to understanding the homo ludens pattern, is in the title of Damasio’s book “Descartes’ Error”. We are not the rational decision makers we believed we are. Damasio’s research showed that our rational mind is controlled by a pre-rational embodied filter.
Bourdieu explained the phenomenology, how exactly this filter is being ‘programmed’ through social interaction. How we negotiate our turf positions through innumerably many subtle carrots and sticks. You might be standing and waiting in the king’s reception hall, and when the king finally arrives, announced by a fanfare, everyone bows. Naturally, you bow too. Every social position carries with it a set of embodied predispositions, which Bourdieu called “habitus”. We inherit them and wear them, just like we might wear a uniform, without thinking that the “realities” they represent are socially constructed.
Damasio explained the inner, cognitive workings of this construction. He showed us that the homo ludens pattern is also an epistemology – albeit an epistemology that makes us ignore knowledge, and the knowledge of knowledge!
Damasio explained why we don’t wake up in the morning wondering if we should take off our pajamas and run into the street naked.
— Bootstrapping social systemic change is a social taboo, similar to showing up in the street naked.
The similarity is obvious, isn’t it? Being naked is not a social taboo in all cultures. The reason why it’s inconceivable to us is obviously our socialization.
The key point here is that changing our social position and habitus, which we’ve embodied through body-to-body socialization, is similarly inconceivable. And yet in a similar sense arbitrary.
By combining the above three vignettes together in a thread, one can begin to understand our socialization as in essence body-to-body turf negotiation – even when our ‘turf’ is so much more complex than the social roles that the Icelandic horses can have. There is a place in our turf that’s labeled “king”, another one labeled “page”, and yet another one labeled “slave”. Each of them carries its own set of prerogatives, and its own mannerism or habitus. The difference between a madman impersonating a king, and a “real” king, is that the latter has been given his habitus by the society; while the former has just given it to himself. But in the practical reality, as history has amply shown, a “real king” can cause incomparably more suffering and destruction than a “dangerous madman”.
— Your point is that the homo ludens is really an epistemology? That there’s a body-to-body “reality” construction that goes on. Which has always been going on?
Precisely! That’s the essence of Bourdieu’s “theory of practice” already. When combined with Damasio’s insights, the reality of this becomes transparent.
These two epistemologies, or paradigms or ways of being, which we are pointing by this pair of keywords, offer us an interesting way of perceiving our contemporary situation, or entanglement. Both the homo ludens and the homo sapiens may see himself as the paragon of evolution, and the other one as about to go extinct.
— How can that be?
The homo sapiens looks at the data. And the trends. The homo ludens doesn’t. He just looks around. And he doesn’t need to do even that much. He knows from experience that to be successful in today’s world, you need to accommodate other people’s turf strategies so that they may accommodate your own. He sees that even “the mightiest man on Earth”, the US president, is clearly a homo ludens. It’s the homo ludens that today fill up the front pages of the newspapers. It’s the homo ludens we vote for, because we trust that they’ll be able to keep the economy growing for another term.
And we don’t, and we cannot, think beyond that.
— I can see what you’re aiming at. The academia should be guiding us along the homo sapiens evolutionary track…
That should be its social role, shouldn’t it?
So imagine if the academia itself would, unknowingly, begin to evolve in the homo ludens way! And if it would be guiding our society along that path.
The homo ludens academicus is a subspecies, an evolutionary deviation from the homo sapiens, which by common logic should not even exist!
And yet if it turns out that it does exist – wouldn’t that give us a simple explanation of the phenomenon we’ve been witnessing all along, how the transformative ideas of giants and the giants themselves got ignored; they simply take too much space on the academic turf!
— What’s the solution? Suppose we now see the Key Point, we see how we may be, unknowingly, hindering progress, and keeping our Galileis in house arrest. What now?
If you look at The Paradigm Strategy poster, you’ll see that the right-hand side is populated by a small collection of design patterns and prototypes, which together show how exactly the challenges represented by the two mentioned patterns can be resolved, by creating prototypes.
You’ll also see that the very first step, however, the one that takes us through the Key Point and to the new paradigm, is bootstrapping.
— You are now supporting Engelbart’s main message, his not yet heard call to action, from the social-psychological point of view? From an understanding of the nature of our societal evolution?
Bootstrapping is the key step for two reasons.
First of all – because self-organization is what we need to do, to be part of the solution. Writing papers, organizing conferences, within the existing order of things, will still comfortably keep us within our existing order of things. And will not have an effect.
The second reason is more subtle. I’ve mentioned that socialization is an epistemology – in the sense that it largely decides how we see the world, and how we understand it. And that (as Bourdieu and Damasio so clearly showed) our socialization is embodied. So the only real way to change our mind is by enacting change on the body level. By acting as our consciousness demands, and against our socialization.
We literally must ‘reprogram’ ourselves.
Herein lies the most challenging part of our contemporary challenge. As it turns out, we are still ethically and psychologically unprepared to make such a step.
— The right-hand side of The Paradigm Strategy poster is showing a small sample of the prototypes. I see that all of them except one have to do with ways to update the academic system. The exception is the Liberation prototype. That’s intended to be the first book in the Knowledge Federation Trilogy, isn’t it?
— The book is about religion? You mentioned that its subtitle is “Religion for the Third Millennium”. How does religion fit into the framework you’ve just sketched, where the academic people are invited to self-reflect about the direction in which they are guiding the society’s evolution?
“It was especially difficult to find in this framework room for those parts of reality that had been the object of the traditional religion and seemed now more or less only imaginary”, observed Heisenberg. You’ll recall from the earlier part of our conversation that Heisenberg singled out religion as that part of our cultural heritage that was especially harmed by the narrow frame.
— For most modern people, religion is just a belief system, held rigidly and often against evidence. You have something else in mind, when you use that word. Religion is not a belief system?
No, of course not. Polyscopy leaves no room for rigidly held beliefs.
— So what is it, then?
“Religion” is an interesting word. It’s composed of Latin religare which means “to bind”. Bind whom – and to what? So let’s define religion, for the purpose of this conversation, as whatever binds us the people to our purpose, and to each other.
Our contemporary religion can then be seen as the religion of egoism. Combined with the myth that the “free competition” or “the invisible hand of the market” will turn our narrowly conceived self-serving acts into a greatest common good is the universal theory or myth which holds it in place.
— In the Liberation book you show how a new religion may be federated?
I do. What makes this federation convenient is Ajahn Buddhadasa’s rediscovery of the essence of the Buddha’s teaching (in which he saw the essence of all religion) – namely that the liberation from selfishness is the key to the personal pursuit of happiness or (better said) of wholeness.
— Buddhadasa too shared this other understanding of what religion is about?
He distinguished between “magic” and “religion”. He acknowledged and respected the need that so many people have, to try to influence their future… But that, in his view, had nothing to do with what he called religion.
— Which is?
Which is simply a natural law that Ven. Siddartha or the Buddha discovered, and that he only rediscovered. And living in accordance with that law. They called that law “Dhamma” or “Dharma”. The law links a certain cause with a certain consequence. You practice in a certain way – and you and your life change accordingly.
— How do you practice? What is the essence of that practice?
It’s the transcendence of egoism.
— So the religion that emerges when we begin to federate the relevant knowledge about religion is opposite from the religion we now have?
— So the word “liberation” in the title refers to liberation from selfishness?
More generally, it refers to the abstinence from clinging to anything whatsoever – which includes not only one’s material possessions, but also ideas and worldviews.
— Buddhadasa’s religion is opposite from what it is for most people?
— In the Liberation book you show how new religion can be federated?
This writing project is partly autobiographical. I had, namely, the fortune to be taught by several outstanding masters of Oriental self-development arts, before I undertook the study of Buddha Dhamma from (the students of) Buddhadasa. This made me realize that we were in a uniquely opportune situation historically – with regards to culture. That there are quite a number of transformative memes ready to enter our culture and change the way we think and live.
— Reading Heisenberg showed you that there was a fundamental-academic obstacle to that?
It did! And that this obstacle was there for no good reason at all!
It’s been a private joke, that I am “an academic fundamentalist”. By this I mean that I am as passionate about setting the academic foundations right, as a religious fundamentalist might be about the peculiarities of his creed.
You can now easily understand the nature of the “larger than life creative opportunity”, which has so passionately driven me during all these years. It is an opportunity to do fundamental academic work, which may have sweeping cultural consequences.
— How do you federate Buddhadasa?
The book has ten chapters, with titles that all begin with the word “liberating”. The first four chapters are about liberating the body, the mind, the emotions and the vitality. The picture that’s being painted there – by federating a variety of insights and sources – is about a radically better human experience. A radically better way of being human – than what our culture affords to us today.
— You show that Buddha Dhamma is a piece in that puzzle?
Exactly! Around the book’s midpoint, when Buddhadasa’s teaching is placed into that picture, it becomes evident that all those people, in the spiritual traditions and in so many others, were really talking about various sides of a single principle. You may already get an idea if you visit the blog posts The Garden of Liberation and Science and Religion.
This story fits so beautifully into our larger story, of knowledge federation as a generalization of science, because what we are talking about are results of a certain kind of research – where the researchers experimented on themselves. This is highlighted in both The Garden of Liberation (by quoting Tagore) and Science and Religion (by quoting Huxley).
— So the new religion, which emerges when we federate knowledge, is exactly what is needed to liberate us from the old worldviews and societal structures – and empower us to collaboratively create new ones?
Yes, that’s exactly the point.
The second half of the Liberation book is about the larger (in scale) cultural and social-systemic liberation. It becomes apparent that in order to be able to enjoy the personal liberation, we need to liberate ourselves from the societal structures that make us unfree. Which keep us in strife.
And vice-versa – we see how personal liberation will naturally make us create a free society. And universal harmony.
— Now that Knowledge Federation dot Org and this explanatory conversation have been completed – what’s next? Your quarter of a century long pursuit is obviously reaching a phase shift. What will the next phase be like?
Until now, all I did – articles, workshops, prototypes, blog posts… – were just pieces in a puzzle. I was writing to develop ideas, and to explain them to myself.
At this point, the whole big thing has been put together. It exists. From this point on everything will be different.
— What difference will “the whole big thing” make?
I see it – and I’ve always seen it in that way – as something like a steam engine. Something that can power new developments in knowledge work and culture. A myriad possibilities are opening up.
— For example?
For example instituting knowledge federation. Making it happen – as an academic field and a real-life praxis. The collective mind re-evolution is now ready to begin in earnest. This re-evolution needs its institutional support. My very first move will be to make some steps toward that goal – which I’ve been preparing for a long time.
— You also have to complete and publish those three books?
I may publish them through a traditional publishing channel, of course. But isn’t it so much more in the spirit of knowledge federation to recreate the conventional publishing as well?
— What do you have in mind?
An interesting question is – if we are to develop knowledge federation within the collective mind paradigm, what will become of the traditional book format?
— And? What’s your answer?
I believe the book is here to stay. But it will find a somewhat new role, and format, within an orchestra of media. So that’s a prototype that’s been germinating for awhile. A prototype of a publishing house, where the book is a part of a multimedia orchestra.
The book is something you can put into your back pocket and read on a hiking trip. But the book should not be the end, but a beginning – of a concerted conversation. Of a dialog. And when that dialog is recorded, and structured, a book instantly becomes a theme of a global dialog. It becomes a conversational ice breaker.
And when, in addition, the choice of themes is as we’ve been talking about – the transformation of values (religion), innovation (democracy) and social construction of truth and meaning (philosophy) – then we really have something that can profile a new publishing house.
— Needless to say, this new publishing house will be an instrument for evolving a collective mind?
— The name for the blog has been changed to Holoscope. What is that intended to suggest?
By giving us the microscope and the telescope, science has made it possible for us to see things that are much too small or too distant to be seen by the naked eye. Consequently our vision, and our understanding, expanded well beyond the limits of our innate, natural capabilities.
But science has also had the tendency to keep us focused on things that are either too small or too distant to be truly relevant – compared to the kind of things we’ve been talking about, things that are central to our lives and culture, and for the time we live in.
You may now imagine a holoscope as a new kind of instrument – which allows us to weave together insights, evidence, heritage, from all existing fields of interest and cultural traditions – to empower us to see and think holistically.
— In the new About article of this blog you wrote only “If you can pass by a newsstand, look at the headlines and think ‘nothing new yet‘, then this blog post may be exactly what you’ve been waiting for.” In what way will this blog be different in the future?
First of all it will be a blog. What you and I are completing here is still a “mini book”, as Alexander once observed my blog posts tended to be. From this point on the blog will be what a blog is supposed to be – in part brief reflections, and in part a timeline.
— A timeline of knowledge federation–related developments?
Yes, but not only.
From this point on the scenario – simplified to the bone, in the spirit of knowledge federation – is centered around two keywords: holoscope and holotopia. The new source of vision illuminates the way to a societal transformation to take place.
The creation of holoscope is of course good news for some of my friends – who see clearly how much our public informing has become just commercial “infotainment”. But the holotopia will be good news for everyone!
A couple of weeks ago I was visiting Alf and Tor Johansen, the founders of Induct. We are creating an initial community site, for both Knowledge Federation and for Holotopia.
Alf told me how his 13 years old daughter came home from school alarmed. She heard a lecture about the climate change. “Are we all going to die?” she asked her father. The point of Holotopia is to radically change the sign of our engagement with our future, from minus to plus. We owe that to our children, don’t we?
— Who are these people? What is Induct?
Since 2010 Induct has had an important role in the knowledge federation development, as our corporate stakeholder. It’s a small but globally spreading company, with large ambition – to interconnect the global innovation ecosystem. As you may have noticed, to impact the world, knowledge federation as a research department needs a sales department, and engineering. And vice-versa – Induct must federate their tools and practices, they cannot just invent them themselves.
— What is the status of the Holotopia prototype? Has the project already been started?
Yes. Holotopia had its first, inauguratory event last June in Bergen – although the name Holotopia came later.
The event in Bergen was a brain child of my friend Vibeke Jensen, who is a Norwegian artist now based in Berlin. Vibeke was originally trained as an architect. While completing her post-graduate education at the prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, Vibeke got influenced by the Situationist International and some of the avant-garde ideas where art and social change are naturally combined. The idea of creating socially transformative situations as an art form is what Holotopia is really all about, isn’t it? After London Vibeke spent a year at Cornell, but the art and intellectual milieu of East Side Manhattan seemed so much more alive and appealing. To the dismay of her parents, who were both Trondheim-based university professors, Vibeke abandoned her so promising academic career, to become an artist in New York.
Long ago Vibeke told me “If someone will decide to take on the whole thing, I’ll be sure to join”. So when I sent her an email saying that the work on the foundations had nearly been completed, and that soon we would be ready to take on the whole thing, she responded by inviting me into her project in Bergen.
— What exactly was the project about?
Vibeke called it Earth Sharing. It’s listed as one of the prototypes in Federation through Applications. Be sure to follow the link to Vibeke’s blog, where you’ll find a proper description and photos.
I am using the above photo to point to the larger meaning of this prototype in our opus – as the holotopia construction site.
— What was the idea of Vibeke’s project?
To create a transformative situation, and a dialog, where some of the key elements of the foundations are coded as objects in space and interaction among people. Notably as a dialog. The chairs on wheels and the triangular segments, which could be used as blackboards and which also had wheels, allowed the participants in a dialog to brainstorm in small groups, and to wheel their pieces and their dialogs together and form a larger whole.
— So knowledge federation was operationalized in the very furniture of the room?
It was! And cultural change as well. In the background you see the earth, for seeds to be planted. You may also see a pyramid, made as stairs with a mirror on one side, which could be used to go dialogically up and see a bigger picture.
The project was staged in the Kunsthall 3.14 in the old center of Bergen. It was significant to our project, that the gallery space used to be a bank. Vibeke turned the vault of the bank into a place for withdrawal and reflection. The vault was in the dark, but could be entered through a mirror, which was transparent from the other side, so one could sit in the dark and still see the world. The speakers on the vault’s ceiling were projecting segments of a conversation Vibeke and I had about (what we now call) the holoscope and the holotopia, to provide the necessary background for the dialogs.
— You gave the gallery visitors the ‘dots’, and invited them to connect them together, by co-creating ideas in time and space?
Yes, that was the idea. But at that time, those ‘dots’ were not yet ready. The Knowledge Federation website was not completed, and neither was this blog post. I ended up feeling that while the world was ready and waiting to receive this work, my homework had not really been completed. So after Bergen, I withdrew into my home base on Bygdøy in Oslo, to create a decent presentation of the project’s background. I’ve been 100% immersed in that creative process ever since.
— The Earth Sharing prototype is an exemplar of knowledge federation in the arts?
It is. Let’s pause to pay homage to the large theme that this still so tiny prototype is representing on the knowledge federation‘s creative frontier.
In every cultural epoch, art was the medium in which the core cultural themes and memes were coded. Researchers found that already the prehistorical Lascaux cave paintings were created for ritual purposes. In Plato’s and Aristotle’s time, the people went to the theater to experience the catharsis, the atonement of one’s own will with the hither order of the universe. During Galilei’s time, the choice of themes in the arts was still largely confined to the Biblical ones, and the cultural revival that ensued was marked by their replacement with others, which honored the everyday life’s themes and beauty. The modern artists, in both their art and their lifestyle, spearheaded a rebellion against tradition. Today, however, there’s hardly any tradition left to rebel against, save the rebellion itself. The question that remains is whether art can once again be the alchemical laboratory where new cultural memes are forged? Can art federate transformative cultural ideas and impulses? Can we use knowledge federation to develop whole new artistic forms that may most effectively serve such purposes?
If the art will once again play a lead role in this new cultural beginning – at will that art be like?
— The transformative event in Bergen also included a choreographed dialog?
Vibeke and her gallerist, Malin Barth, had the good sense to invite also David Price – who is a leader on the frontier where the global collective mind is evolving, and a true master of the fine art of dialog. David is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, with a doctorate from Cambridge.
The three of us have been developing the Holotopia project ever since. This embryo will soon be large enough for other knowledge federation creatives to step in.
— Out of curiosity – why do you share the academic titles of your co-workers? You must surely know that that’s no longer politically correct…
We are here making a proposal to academia. My intention is to show that the academia‘s disruptively creative branch is still alive and well – although in might no longer have a place in the academic departments. Our proposal is to give it a place – by institutionalizing knowledge federation.
— How would you describe the Holotopia?
Here is a beginning of a tentative description, copied from a still private Holotopia page on Debategraph:
Since Sir Thomas More created that concepts five centuries ago, many authors projected their visions as utopias – ideal and idyllic social orders, which never existed and often could never exist. Later when it became clear that our civilization was not doing well, dystopias or apocalyptic fictional visions of the future also became common.
Protopias were developed as a reaction and an alternative to both: The ideal order of things is obviously beyond reach. But we must avoid the worst! Protopias describe small, realistic and gradual steps, as the ones that can be made.
Holotopia is different.
It transcends the utopia by being not only a realistic, non-fictional vision, but also a space where the pursuit of that vision is made practical. And it transcends the protopia by daring to aim well beyond what common utopias dared.
What makes the holotopia possible is a paradox:
Comprehensive change can be easy – even when partial changes may seem impossible!
Holotopia’s vision is a comprehensive and harmonious change of our entire societal order of things – to a whole new order. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment – the sweeping change of the order of things that was taking place in Thomas Moore’s time – is a historical precedent. In other words, holotopia is a paradigm – which combines philosophy with social change, and personal transformation with entrepreneurship.
What makes holotopia possible is, simply, knowledge. Holotopia grew out of our concerted efforts to liberate and unite the knowledge we have, which is held captive in academic disciplines and cultural traditions. We combined community action with new media technology. The insight that resulted is that we already own all the knowledge we need to ignite a comprehensive change. And that what’s still lacking is the ability to put this knowledge together, and make it visible.
— I’d hesitate to end this conversation without hearing also your private voice. How did this quarter of a century-long academic odyssey feel like?
Oh, it was full of surprises.
Its very inception was already a surprise. I grew up with such romantic ideas about the academia, that I didn’t even dream of becoming a researcher. And when right after graduation I found myself wearing a white coat in a lab, the extent of my ambition was to make small but real contributions.
When years later I shared some of the challenges and feelings that resulted from my academic odyssey with my father, he would say “Well, you made that choice…” But I never felt that there was any choice to be made. One day I only noticed, to my no small surprise, that an evolutionary stream flowing toward an academic black swan event had caught me in its current, and was carrying me along.
— The second surprise was, I imagine, the reaction to the black swan event? Or perhaps the lack of reaction?
You are so absolutely right! I knew nothing about the paradoxical dynamic of paradigm shifts. In my naïveté, I anticipated exactly an opposite dynamic from what resulted. I was thrilled by the beauty, the naturalness and the power of the ideas that were taking shape. And I looked forward to sharing them with my academic colleagues, and with everyone else.
— People could not see the black swan?
You’ve must have come across the Ugly Duckling story, haven’t you? Well, the coming of age of those black swans tends to be incomparably worse. To begin with, they take a very long time to hatch. And even then, being black, they don’t even look like ugly ducklings. Nobody expects to see a black swan. So even when he’s fully grown, people will tend to look at him and see only a weird-looking oversize crow.
We academics are so used to “good research” being technical and precise results in long-established and familiar fields, that nobody really knows how to deal with completely new developments, on an academic no man’s land.
My good fortune was that I had established my reputation, and academic tenure, on the safe ground of algorithm theory. And that I was in Norway – where the academic and general culture are sufficiently tolerant and supportive to make this sort of adventure possible.
— In order to be able to pursue what you considered good research, you had to live with the status of a lesser researcher?
I did, indeed!
— And then there is that issue we’ve just talked about, of the academic turf?
Oh yes oh yes, there is indeed that issue too!
— In Ode to Self-Organization – Part Two you shared a vignette where you described the reactions to one of your first polyscopy presentations and bootstrapping proposals as being on a first-time visit in some people’s home, and starting to rearrange the furniture…
Yes, that expresses the way this felt quite precisely. It was beside the point whether the ‘furniture’ fitted better when rearranged in the new way. What mattered was that it was their furniture, and that I had no business doing that. The vignettes from here until the end of the section will illustrate what I’m talking about.
This experience helped me realize early that the core issue was the social psychology we’ve just been talking about. And to research it thoroughly.
— The reactions to Knowledge Federation’s various bootstrapping proposals and attempts were in that same spirit, weren’t they? You listed some of them in a special category of prototypes called Quixote stunts. Why that name?
It might seem that we are making assaults on windmills, in the name of outdated ideals like sense and purpose. While in fact we are making experiments, to show how much our academic systemic structures, and the culture that holds them together, have lost touch with sense and purpose. How much they are just idle remnants from the past. Just windmills.
— You listed only a couple of them, and without the details. Would you like to describe some of them now?
The details can meaningfully be shared only with someone who fully comprehends the background. And even then, only ‘over a glass of wine’ – i.e. in a dialog. The juice is in the details. If you click here you’ll be able to hear an excerpt from such a conversation, which Vibeke and I had last June. It’s about one of the two listed Quixote stunts, our attempted intervention into the system of the systems science community. The recording was done at 11AM, and both Vibeke and I were stretching limits of our eloquence, after a whole day of working and talking. Although only about half the story was told, the message should, I believe, be clear. This fifteen-minute dialog will give you a fractal-like snapshot of a threshold that we, as academia and as civilization, must find a way to overcome.
— Your other bootstrapping attempts were similar?
— So you have a 100% failure rate?!
Or success rate, depending on how you look at it. Our Quixote stunts have perfectly confirmed the theory outlined on The Paradigm Strategy poster.
— How did you cope with this sort of “success”?
I was a cultural mutant to begin with. And I realized that to be able to serve the cause that had chosen me as its servant, I had to become a better version of myself. And so took learning to cope as a challenge or opportunity, and as just part of the deal.
Was it Sartre who observed that the job of an intellectual is to represent unpopular ideas? That’s really what we are paid for. Representing popular ideas is what everyone else does, even without being paid.
— What about your human support system?
I have some precious friends and collaborators. The creative frontier we’ve been talking about is a natural filter. And on the family side, I have Noah, my 9-yr old. Besides, by now I am quite seasoned in the role.
My parents supported me during the most challenging initial period. Each summer I would be writing in the upstairs room with a view of their Adriatic coast cabin. I would come downstairs for a long swim, eat some of my mother’s delicious food and have a long conversation with my father. On arrival, I would feel like a boxer who had received too many blows; the body just didn’t want go back into that ring. When I was about to leave, I was ready to ‘take the beating’ again.
— Your father understood the nature of your project?
He did. It took a few years; but in the end he got it. When I was writing the Information Must Be Designed manuscript in the upstairs room, I would tell him the details and we would discuss them together.
— What were your father’s reactions?
He predicted that my ideas would not be accepted during my lifetime. “Your job is to write them up”, he’d say.
— He was skeptical about the value of your work?
No, he was skeptical about our zeitgeist.
During his lifetime, my father saw the zeitgeist change, also in his profession. As a reputed lawyer, he was well nuanced in legal thinking – which formed a hierarchy of principles and ideas that’s been evolving since the beginning of civilization. He saw how the age-old legal principles became less relevant, as the homo ludens juridicus rose to prominence.
— You father didn’t think this negative evolution could be reversed?
He believed it would be reversed – but only after some disaster. Or a series of disasters. He advised me to write “for some other people”, who would come after the disasters.
— And you? Did you agree with him?
No, not really.
First of all, our conversations took place before we created Knowledge Federation. Knowledge federation is so much an idea whose time has come, that it’s emerging by itself. People have been making creative contributions to Knowledge Federation even without understanding its larger purpose. The whole thing just feels so right – and for a variety of reasons!
While as a lawyer my father may have been able to follow the changes of the zeitgeist much better than I could, he might have also missed to see the developments that I’ve been witnessing. The enabling technology has just been developed – and systemic innovation is on the rise. More and more people see it as the next big thing. The awareness of the global trend and challenges is also rapidly rising. The natural next step is to see those two as two sides of the same coin. I don’t believe that the paradigm shift in knowledge work can be stopped. And why would anyone stop it?
— There’s the homo ludens issue…
There is, of course. But as we have just seen – we can now deal with it directly, by understanding it as an issue. We have a quite mature theory – created by federating some of the best work done in the humanities. How will the homo ludens academicus use his usual strategy and tactics in this new frame of reference – without exposing himself as homo ludens?
Notice that we are not only writing about these things. The design epistemology demands that we use our creativity to develop tools and strategies for handling this most central issue.
— Such as the dialog?
Indeed! You’ll notice that we are not proposing our prototype as the solution. The solution we are proposing is to develop a co-creative dialog, within which our knowledge work can continue to evolve indefinitely. The moment this dialog is in place – so is our solution!
And then there’s also transparency. Or the reality show, as I like to think of it. The dialogs will be recorded, they’ll make the dynamic transparent. It is very easy to distinguish verbal turf strife from genuine interest and co-creation.
— The dialogs can be successful even when they fail?
They can – by providing a vivid record of the realities that are present. By exposing that which keeps us from evolving. The dialog is an evolutionary tool.
— The proposed knowledge federation prototype will also make a difference?
The prototype may, of course, make a large difference. We have a prototype of an elephant, for everyone to see. The pieces – such as the ideas and contributions of giants – have a context within which they can be understood. And which can give them real-life impact!
And the story continues. We are not just writing up these ideas, and waiting for them to be accepted. We are indeed from this point on turning our project into a strategy game. A game that promises to be awesome!
— It’s David vs. Golliath? The Knowledge Federation, that small academic guerrilla, is challenging the academic standing army to come out of its disciplinary trenches, and join it on a creative frontier where difference will be made?
You may romanticize the story that way. But I prefer to see it as just a natural evolutionary course, which has naturally taken some of us a bit sooner than others.
— You are now turning the blog into a window into that game? You are inviting your readers to a “reality show”?
I’ve been playing with this idea, to recreate that medium as well, to suit our purposes. Within the Holotopia prototype we are talking about the possibility of a new art form. At the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, people went to the theatre to experience catharsis. That was part of the culture. With today’s media, and building on the arts’ rich tradition, we can create transformative situations that will do exactly what’s needed.
We are about to claim back our socialization. Which really means – our culture. And its evolution – which is of course our evolution!
The stage has just been set, and the show is just about to begin.
— You are turning this blog into a timeline?
I am. I am myself curious to see what’s about to happen on that stage.
— Lots of people are skeptical about our future, just as your father seems to have been. How do you see the future?
I just don’t. I focus on what’s here and now.
In 1999 The Economist issued a challenge called World in 2050, to write an essay envisioning what the world would be like in another half-century. I titled my essay “World in yr. 2000”. I wrote that nobody can predict what the world would be like in 2050. But that the outcome would crucially depend on how we see the world today.
And so I detailed – and I still see things in exactly that way – that two very different future scenarios are possible. Our “order of things” today is unstable, and cannot last. So what our time is calling for is the creation of a solid new order of things, however small. It will make all the difference whether our existing order of things disintegrates through a smooth transition into a new order. Or whether it only disintegrates.
— You see this creation as an opportunity?
I do – and that’s really my main point.
I was once sitting in a restaurant with my friend Nina Witoszek and eating sushi. Nina is a humanist and culture historian, working on the issues of global change; and we were talking about the cultural revival. “You seem to have a highly romanticized idea about the Renaissance”, Nina told me. “Renaissance was abysmal – wars, epidemics, bigotry and superstition. What you think about as Renaissance was really just a handful of people, who survived by writing letters to each other across Europe.”
You can see this too from a bright side: We don’t need to wait for the world to change to experience “a great cultural revival”. It’s already there. What makes all the difference is how we present ourselves to it.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world”, Margaret Mead famously observed. “Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” With today’s technology of communication, we don’t need to kindle change by writing letters to each other across Europe. In this age, the developments can be a lot faster.
— I believe I am beginning to see through to the meaning of your “larger than life creative opportunity”. I can see why somebody really had to do this!
— I enjoyed this conversation. I hope you found it useful.
I very much enjoyed it too!
And I did indeed find it helpful. You made a dent in the veil of silence that’s been shrouding knowledge federation.
I could only wish you were a real person. This does feel a bit like talking to myself…
— Now you’re being unfair! I am a real person! Even if you don’t see me. I am your reader! And for all you know, I might be exactly the one who gets it. The one who will make a difference.