“Holotopia: An Actionable Strategy” is an uncommon academic result, which reads more like an action plan to change the world, than like the kind of work we expect from scientists. We interviewed one of its architects and asked for explanation.
I am about to improvise an interview with myself. What you’ve just seen is its lead paragraph.
My uncle Suad is a journalist célèbre in Dubrovnik, Croatia, retired from journalism and writing books. I call him up occasionally for inspiration. Several days ago we had a long conversation, I told him what I’m doing and described my situation. And I asked for his expert opinion—if he thought my story was crazy.
“No, it sounds really interesting,” he reassured me and seemed sincere. “But a journalist may not understand it. Why don’t you write an interview with yourself? Make it easy for a journalist to pick up your story.”
“Excellent!” I answered. “I’ll improvise an interview—and ask you to edit it.”
Here is what I sent him.
– You often introduce ideas by telling people’s stories. Introduce to us holotopia by sharing your story.
In 1992 I moved from the USA, where I did my doctorate in algorithm theory, to a tenured position at the University of Oslo. I saw myself on the periphery of the world map, in a place where the pressure to compete and produce was considerably lower, and I decided to adjust my way of working and turn that into an advantage. Soon I had an idea for a larger-than-life project, which would have been unthinkable in the high-pressure academic culture I left behind. It took me 25 years to complete it, with generous help of my friends. Between 2008 and 2018 the project was developed with and within an international R&D community called Knowledge Federation.
Then I spent a couple of years in a self-imposed quarantine (which had nothing to do with COVID19), to focus 100% and combine the ideas and results into a coherent system.
– You call holotopia “an actionable strategy”. What is its aim?
You may think of it as an answer to contemporary issues. I prefer to see it as an answer to the challenge posited by the Modernity ideogram, the bus with candle headlights.
– The bus represents our society? The candle headlights represent the way we handle information?
That’s right. Holotopia is what we would see as a possible future, and as ‘the better road to follow’, if our society had proper ‘headlights’.
– What makes holotopia “actionable”?
We made a collection of about forty prototypes, by which what needs to be done to manifest holotopia is already implemented—as real-life, functioning models.
And we also added an action plan, the holotopia mission.
– You proposed “White Is the New Black” as the title for this interview. What does that mean?
That holotopia is ready to go mainstream. Wearing black is neither a fad nor a fashion—it’s the default. We are proposing to break the habit of painting the future black—and see it as bright and inviting.
Furthermore the change to holotopia is dramatic—like the change from black to white; or from darkness to light.
By the way, white—which as the all-inclusive color might be emblematic of holotopia—is also the new red and the new green. But that’s a theme for a whole new conversation.
– Holotopia is a future vision. How would you describe it?
We described it by developing an analogy between what is possible now, and the comprehensive change that was germinating four centuries ago.
– When Galilei was in house arrest?
When Galilei was in house arrest. We use that iconic image, of Galilei whispering “Eppur si muove” into his beard, to characterize our situation: Whatever we need to know to be able to begin a new wave of change, has already been shared. But the best ideas of our best minds are still ignored; they are still ‘in house arrest’.
The holotopia is a vision of a possible future that results when we ‘connect the dots’—when we combine ideas together.
We made the holotopia vision concrete in terms of five insights. Each of them elaborates one part of the analogy with the historical sweeping wave of change. Each of them is a result of ‘connecting the dots’, or federating knowledge, in a pivotal domain of interest:
- innovation (analogy with Industrial Revolution)
- communication (analogy with Gutenberg Revolution)
- epistemology (analogy with Enlightenment)
- method (analogy with Scientific Revolution)
- values (analogy with Renaissance)
The changes the five insights point to are so interdependent, that making one them means making them all. An overarching insight results—that a large and comprehensive change, of the whole order of things, can be natural and easy—even when small and obviously necessary changes are impossible.
– That’s the holotopia strategy, isn’t it?
The strategy we are proposing and implementing is to focus our efforts on comprehensive and positive change. A change of our cultural and social order of things or paradigm as a whole.
– Holotopia does sound too good to be true. Our readers will need to believe in it to read your proposal. Convince us that the opportunity you are talking about is real. Bring this conversation down to earth by zooming in on a detail. Show us that holotopia has substance.
The collective mind insight, the second of the five insights, may be the easiest to grasp offhand. And we also have some stories to bring it to the fore.
Let’s begin with the story of Vannevar Bush—an early computing machinery pioneer, who before the World War II became MIT professor and dean. And who during the war served as the leader of the US scientific effort, coordinating 6000 chosen scientists and making sure that we have the leading edge in weapons and technology. In 1945, this scientific strategist par excellence wrote a call to action article titled “As We May Think”. Now that we’ve won the war, Bush told the scientists, there remains a problem that we must urgently focus on and resolve: The way we handle information is centuries old; and given the amounts we own, it has become inadequate. We can no longer make use of our information.
– What was the meaning of Bush’s title, “As We May Think”?
Our challenge, Bush proposed, is to turn information into meaning. Given its volume, the only way to do that is to do it collectively.
We must learn to think together, as the cells in the human mind do. “As we may think” points to the way the human mind creates meaning—by making connections; by ‘connecting the dots’. That we must now learn to do collectively.
Bush’s call to action was to begin by crafting the technology and social process that would enable us to do that.
– Did anyone respond?
Douglas Engelbart did. I’ll come back to that in a moment. Let me first introduce Norbert Wiener, and his 1948 book “Cybernetics”.
Wiener’s abilities manifested themselves early: He received his BA in mathematics when he was 14, a doctorate in philosophy from Cornell when he was 17, and a doctorate in mathematical logic from Harvard when he was 19. He then went on to make seminal contributions to several fields, one of which was cybernetics.
Wiener cited Bush to make an essential point—that neither democracy nor sustainability are possible in the conditions that Bush described.
– That is also the message of the bus with candle headlights, isn’t it?
It is. “Cybernetics” is the science of governability. The bus with candle headlines expresses the main insight of cybernetics: To be governable or sustainable, a system (of which our society is an example) must use information to correct its behavior. Otherwise it is a risk to its environment, and to itself.
– Cybernetics did not develop the technology that Bush was asking for?
No, Doug Engelbart and his SRI lab did that.
Bush thought that the microfilm would be the technology of choice. It was Engelbart who saw (in 1951!) that when we humans are connected to a digital computer by an interactive interface, and when our computers are connected together in a network—then we are connected with each other as cells in the human organism are connected by the nervous system. We can then think together. Notice that all earlier media required that a message be physically transported.
This new technology constitutes the ‘collective nervous system’ for our collective mind to be developed.
– Have not Bill Gates and Steve Jobs created that technology?
It took a couple of decades for the people in Silicon Valley to understand that the technology and the principles behind it were not invented by Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, or in XEROX PARC where they acquired it—but by Doug Engelbart and his lab. Toward the end of the 1990s Engelbart received a large collection of medals and honors.
But his real mission was never completed, or even understood. In 2013, the inventor who created “the revolution in the Valley” died feeling he had failed.
– The technology he created is everywhere! How could he feel that way?
We used the new technology to make the old ways of communicating more efficient. To produce more old-fashioned documents, and to broadcast more.
We used the ‘electricity’ to re-create the ‘candle’!
– We used Engelbart’s technology to make the problem Bush was pointing to worse?
That’s right. Neil Postman characterized the situation that resulted.
At the NYU, where he was a professor and the chairman in the Department of Culture and Communication, Postman established a MS program in “media ecology”. What are the effects of the new media, and of all the information we have to deal with, on our minds and culture?
Postman’s answered (in a 1990 televised interview, in connection with the publication of his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death”):
“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.”
Postman also made the observation that Vannevar Bush and Norbert Wiener shared :
“The tie between information and action has been severed.”
– I am beginning to comprehend the collective mind insight. Would you like to phrase it?
As an algorithm theorist specialized in holistic vision, I can diagnose that the problem we are facing is not ‘a bug in the program’; the program or the algorithm or the social process we use to handle information as a whole is misconceived. It cannot be fixed; it has to be redesigned—by implementing a different principle of operation.
– We are back to the bus with candle headlights, aren’t we?
We are. We cannot create the lightbulb by improving the candle. Only re-creation can give us the collective mind we need.
– Academic publishing, as it is, cannot really solve this problem?
The tie between information and action having been severed…
We academics too “generate tons of information every hour”. And we are too busy doing that to notice the irony—that our communication line with the rest of the society has been cut; that there is nobody on the other end listening.
Think of all the wonderful work that’s been confined to academic bookshelves!
Imagine, on the other hand, what our world would be like if each of us could instantly benefit from what everyone else thinks and knows!
– That’s the goal of knowledge federation, isn’t it?
Knowledge federation is the principle of operation of a functional collective mind by definition. The task of knowledge federation as an academic field is to develop and continuously improve its details—and weave them into academic and real-life practice.
– The result of your 25 years-long project is a prototype of knowledge federation?
In the holotopia context we call it holoscope.
– How will you secure that knowledge federation does not remain without effect—the tie between information and action having been severed?
Doug Engelbart left us a way to overcome the paradox. He called it “bootstrapping”. The idea is to self-organize and be the solution; be the ‘headlights’.
– How do you use that principle?
We self-organize and co-create prototypes. A prototype is a model already implemented in practice, acting upon practice in order to change it.
A prototype is also an experiment—showing what works, and what needs to be improved.
– How did Knowledge Federation originate?
A handful of us got together at a research conference in Germany, in 2007. We were all developing collective mind technology and processes. We needed an academic community—and we established it at our first meeting in 2008, at the Inter University Center Dubrovnik.
Already there we saw that the technology and processes that we and our colleagues were developing were ready to ‘change our collective mind’. And that to be able to do that, we needed to self-organize differently. At our second biennial meeting in Dubrovnik in 2010 we self-organized as a transdiscipline.
– What does that mean?
We convene a multidisciplinary community to create a systemic prototype, and update it continuously. In that way the knowledge in participating disciplines can impact real-life systems directly.
– Academic disciplines are results of centuries-long evolution. Where do the methods of knowledge federation come from?
We use knowledge federation to create them.
We create methods by ‘connecting the dots’—by combining what is known about information and knowledge; and by combining relevant techniques—from the sciences, and also from journalism, arts and other fields.
– What other prototypes do you have?
Our 40 prototypes provide all that is needed to complete the ‘headlights’. We created, for instance, a prototype of a public informing that points to real, or effective, or systemic remedies for perceived problems. It is conceived as an answer to the question “What do people really need to know so that the democracy can function? So that the society may become sustainable? The news production loop included not only journalists, but also citizens, scientists and communication designers.
We have similar prototypes in scientific communication and education. And for other application domains where communication can make a difference, such as tourism/corporate organization and healthcare.
– You said that holoscope is a new way to create insights, across disciplines and traditions. To put disparate pieces together, and see things whole. Show us holoscope in action! Show us what it can do—by applying it to holotopia itself. Show us a red thread that runs through the five insights without going into details. Help us comprehend the holotopia’s essence without overloading us with data.
Oh yes, sure. Coincidentally, the thread is a techniques we use to combine distinct ideas, represented by anecdotes. It is an adaptation of a technique that Vannevar Bush recommended for collective thinking, and called “trail”.
We compose a tread by connecting anecdotes, which we call vignettes. The vignette is adapted from journalism; it makes insights accessible by weaving them into stories.
Shall I improvise a thread for you?
– Yes, please.
I am thinking of three vignettes. The anecdotes are familiar, and I can only name them.
The first is Biblical Exodus. Think of Moses liberating the Hebrews from slavery, leading them across Red Sea, bringing them Ten Commandments carved in stone by Almighty himself.
The second is the inception of Academia. Think of Socrates portraying the human condition by telling the Allegory of the Cave. And of Plato establishing the Academia, to liberate us from the ‘cave’.
The third is “Galilei in house arrest”.
– What ideas do you want those stories to represent?
The Exodus points to an obvious one: People liberated from an oppressive social order need principles to live by—and be able to create a culture, and a new social order.
The principles Moses brought were “carved in stone”. This points to another idea: Cultural traditions grounded their principles in a belief—that they were revealed to their prophets. People were socialized to accept such beliefs, and principles, without questioning. Whoever failed to believe and comply was banished—as the Galilei parable illustrates.
Maintaining a social order by principles ‘carved in stone’, and by socialization, had serious disadvantages; just think of all the wars that were waged, and all injustice that’s been done—in the name of God who forbade us to kill and taught us to love. This traditional way of creating a culture, and maintaining a social order, made minds and cultures rigid; and worldviews and institutions unable to evolve.
The second vignette, about the inception of Academia, points to an alternative.
– Would you summarize for us the Parable of the Cave?
By picturing us, humans, as chained in a cave, and able to see only a play of shadows on the wall, Plato’s Socrates suggested that we live in a “reality picture” that is formed partly by power play, partly by calcified errors of perception.
The philosophers of old conceived a way to liberate us—by devising a method by which insights can be reached. So that we may see how those ‘shadows’ are created. And then leave the ‘cave’—by using insights to create principles.
– I am guessing that the third vignette, of Galilei in house arrest, is the good news: After one thousand years of Dark Ages, the academic tradition—first revived and then freed from house arrest— liberated our ancestors from the ‘cave’.
That’s the official narrative. Our version is a bit different.
– Did not science give us the ability to create insights and principles?
It did, of course it did. But only there where the methods of its disciplines could be applied—notably in understanding the natural phenomena; and creating the technology. Not in culture; not in matters around which our daily lives revolve.
Galilei in house arrest will help us see why: At the point when science was emerging, the Church and the tradition held the culture and the society in grip. Wasn’t that why Galilei was arrested?
But the progress of science could not be stopped. So later a compromise was reached, where science took charge of “natural philosophy”, and the Church and tradition of all the rest.
Further successes of science, aided by industrialization, tipped this power balance. The principles ‘carved in stone’ no longer had bearings in the rational way of thinking that was rapidly taking sway.
But science never adjusted itself to its new and much larger social role—of “the Grand Revelator of modern Western culture”, as Benjamin Lee Whorf called it. Science remained what it was, the natural philosophy.
So without intending that, science took away the ‘principles carved in stone’—and left us without principles!
– Aren’t you exaggerating? Isn’t the rational way of thinking you just mentioned our new way to create principles?
As I said, it works only for constructing our society’s ‘hardware’, the engine and the wheels of the ‘bus’ so that it may run faster; not for creating our society’s ‘software’, or culture, or ‘headlights’ that would empower us to ‘steer’.
See what Werner Heisenberg (who got the Nobel Prize when he was thirty, “for the creation of quantum mechanics” at twenty five) wrote in 1958, in “Physics and Philosophy”:
“[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 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. (…) 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. (…). Confidence in the scientific method and in rational thinking replaced all other safeguards of the human mind.”
Heisenberg explained how modern physics disproved the narrow frame. He wrote Physics and Philosophy believing that the largest gift of modern physics to humanity would be the cultural revival that would result from removing the narrow frame. Not the technology it made possible.
But the tie between information and action having been severed—Heisenberg’s insight too remained without effect.
– You are proposing a way to continue and perhaps complete the evolutionary process that Socrates and Plato began 25 centuries ago? And liberate ourselves, finally, from the ‘cave’?
All we need to know to be able to do that has already been written. It remains to combine the details into insights—and act on them.
– The role of the five insights is to organize what is most relevant in our vast body of knowledge for illuminating the way out of the ‘cave’?
Those insights are what you might expect to result, when the project science is released from the narrow frame—and allowed to transform everyday reality.
– How do the five insights show the way out of the ‘cave’?
The results in the humanities enable us to debunk the “social construction of reality” as Berger and Luckmann called it, or the socialized reality as we did—and by doing that empower us to see by ourselves how the ‘shadows on the wall of the cave’ are created.
Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explained how our social realities are constructed. How we negotiate power relationships through subtle, body-to-body interaction, without being aware of that. And how this characteristically human ‘turf strife’ shapes our “reality picture”, and our culture and institutions, as a complex ‘turf’.
Cognitive neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explained why the “reality” created in this way has such an uncanny grip on our awareness, that we can even destroy our life-support system without noticing.
– Socialized reality is the third of the five insights?
The first insight, called power structure, shows how that subtle power play creates social institutions or more generally systems that not only waste, but also misdirect our efforts. How we become “the enemy”.
The fifth insight, the convenience paradox, shows how the ‘turf strife’ impairs our emotional life and relationships; and distances us from wholeness.
– And the way out of the ‘cave’? How do you see it?
The key is “the relationship we have with information”, or “the foundations for truth and meaning” or epistemology—as it was in Galilei’s time. Galilei was not tried for claiming that the Earth was moving; that was a technical detail. His capital transgression was his claim that when the human reason contradicts the Scripture, the reason could be right. Galilei was challenging the very foundation on which the Medieval culture and society were constructed.
– What new epistemology do you see emerging?
The foundation we’ve inherited from the past, where the purpose of information is to provide us “the objectively true picture of reality”, is what keeps us in the ‘cave’. This foundation has been repeatedly challenged and discredited in 20th century science and philosophy.
We showed how a new foundation can be developed without any spurious assumptions—based on what philosopher Willard van Orman Quine called “truth by convention”.
The foundation we are proposing is the one the Modernity ideogram is pointing to. We made a convention that information is (to be considered as) a functional element in a larger whole or system; and adapted to its various roles, so that the larger system can be whole.
– The details of the holoscope follow from this principle?
They do. The holoscope is a prototype of the ‘headlights’.
– Is there a way to condense the five insights to a single general principle?
Yes, there is.
The principle is “make things whole“.
– That principle gave holotopia its name?
– What practical difference will this principle make?
This principle points to direction reversals in innovation, communication, epistemology, method and values, that the five insights identified as necessary and possible.
It also has an interesting cognitive side. When we consciously overcome the impulse to serve “our own” desires and interests, and act toward making things whole, we train the better sides of ourselves to overcome the weaknesses that keep us in the ‘cave’.
We in that way liberate ourselves from the negative socialization we embody, and hence from socialized reality—which is of course just the name we’ve given to the ‘cave’.
– You mentioned a call to action and an action plan. What are they?
Our mission, or call to action, has two steps.
The first is to institutionalize knowledge federation as an academic field. This step mobilizes the academia‘s resources toward liberating our society from the ‘cave’, which keeps it on a self-destructive course, and giving it the vision it needs.
The second step is to develop the holotopia project in real life. Its purpose is to create the ‘headlights’ in real life. And use them to choose our future, and steer toward it.
– In what way did you make those two steps “actionable”?
We provided a complete prototype of knowledge federation as an academic field or transdiscipline—with everything that qualifies an academic field, from epistemology and methods to social processes and a community.
We also completed a detailed action plan and a minimal prototype project for actualizing the holotopia. The prototype includes a collection of “tactical assets”, to make this co-creative advance toward holotopia smooth and magnificent.
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