We could ignore our civilization’s ills. Or we could sound an alarm, and be alarmed. But a third option is now available—to co-creatively reverse the destructive trends. And look at the future with optimism. As of January 1, holotopia is no longer only an actionable strategy; it has become a buddying project and initiative. Hear what happened.
“Why can’t I just live?”
Noah had asked this question earlier. But when it came up while we were discussing our planned Easter trip to Zagreb, almost a year ago in an Oslo city bus that was taking us to his mother, it made me think of an idea.
So I took the above photo, intending to share that moment and idea in this blog.
The purpose of our trip was to introduce Noah to parts of his family he never met. And to show him the city where I studied and lived for ten years, when it’s in blossom. And as always, to give something back to Zagreb. So we scheduled an event in Europe House Zagreb for April 7.
I was eager to introduce holotopia in a dialog. Renata, who coordinated Europe House, was passionate about raising young people’s awareness, while it still can be raised. Marija, the young social scientist who coordinated the academic part, and her colleagues at the Section for Research on Science and Technology of the Croatian Sociological Society, and at the Institute for Political Ecology, wanted to hear about knowledge federation transdisciplinary methodology. So I thought—Why not center this event on Noah? Why don’t we together answer the question he was asking—by using knowledge federation methodology to combine our insights, and articulate a message?
An answer to Noah’s question is the obligation we as generation have toward his. Why can’t they simply do what seems like fun? Why be aware? Why work for change?
The answer will naturally introduce holotopia.
COVID-19 made our journey impossible. And the earthquake that followed made Europe House unusable. So also this blog post got postponed.
On December 31, in the bus that was taking us from the home he shares with his mother to the one we share on Bygdøy (where we would have a cosy tapas dinner and watch fireworks), I was reporting to Noah what transpired while he was away.
We talk in English, and I used the opportunity to introduce an unfamiliar word—”empowerment”.
The response I got from Uncle Suad was empowering. He liked the interview I wrote for him in my recent blog post. Postman’s diagnosis—and knowledge federation as cure—resonated with him most strongly:
…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.
Having spent five decades in journalism, my uncle was painfully aware of its trend to meaninglessness. Commercialization and banalization of media reporting was the reason why he retired from it to write books.
Uncle Suad empathized with the dis-empowerment I felt when academic people couldn’t care less about knowledge federation. “Your point is crystal-clear,” he reassured me. “Self-doubt is out of place.”
The Skype meeting I had with our friend David (I share with Noah my friends) was equally empowering. At the end of a long conversation about knowledge federation‘s status and future, David confirmed what I myself was beginning to feel—that I now have the writing ‘voice’ that will allow me to finally finish those books.
Empowered, I spent Christmas holidays writing, and left home only for an occasional jog or to buy food.
Now we have a complete skeleton of the Liberation book!
Why am I talking about these things to a ten-year-old?
Everything in my life is a prototype. Noah is no exception.
When Noah was only a wish in his mother’s mind, I asked if she really thought we should bring one more human being to this world. “We will bring one who will make a difference”, she answered.
To burden a child with a mission of that size would, of course, be plain wrong. But so would be denying that possibility to a child who has the potential to make a difference. We, after all, created this mess, and brought to it our children. Pretending that it’s not there, that we can all “just live”, will not improve our score.
So I created a prototype called Raising Noah. And invited a couple of culture-creative friends to join in.
Noah showed a potential that encouraged me. The ability I worked for so long to develop, to ‘connect the dots’ and see through to the nature of a complex situation or idea, Noah had naturally. Schooling had not yet taken it away. He also had the honesty to see and say when ‘the king is naked’. Socialization had not yet corrupted it. Noah is loyal and affectionate. During the last five years, when I isolated myself more and more to avoid disempowerment and fully focus on finalizing my project, his presence was invaluable.
I don’t tell Noah what to think. I encourage him to do that.
And I share with him my dreams—as Graham Nash recommended.
On January 1 a variant of that same question came up again, and I decided to take it up on my own.
I introduced my answer by saying that I was about to explain why COVID-19 is a small matter, compared to the problems we ought to be concerned about. Which have a common structure I will illustrate with a parable.
I sketched an island with a rabbit and a carrot. And I asked Noah to imagine that rabbits came to an island that had an abundance of juicy carrots, and no wolves or foxes. And that the rabbits did what rabbits are good at—ate and reproduced. Until rabbits were many, and carrots few.
The rabbits thus reached the point where “just living” was obviously impossible.
But what options did they have?
“The rabbits must take up gardening”, Noah remarked, “or die.”
I asked him to imagine what that “dying” really meant. An island-full of rabbits don’t die instantly. It may take generations. What will rabbit life be like meanwhile? Will rabbits have the moral strength to just stoically starve to death? Or will they fight over the remaining carrots—and turn into wolves?
I asked Noah to observe that gardening takes time. And that when the carrots are running out and the rabbits are hungry—it is far too late to begin.
COVID-19 is not that kind of problem. I am not saying we should ignore it, on the contrary! I am only pointing to what’s obvious: COVID-19 is incomparably less grave than the problems we are talking about.
So why are we so vigorously responding to the former, and not to the latter?
Because we are a culture that’s “just living”.
I imagined a rabbit, perhaps a rabbit scientist or philosopher, pointing out to others: “We must do as the humans—take up gardening! That’s our only chance, our only way to survive!” I imagined another one, perhaps a rabbit businessman or politician, bringing him to reality: “We have paws instead of hands. And we have no knowledge or technology. And most importantly—only the homo sapiens can comprehend his situation and decide what to do.”
So the rabbits are doomed. They have no option but to die out.
But we are humans!
The irony in our situation is that we are the homo sapiens—biologically. We have hands instead of paws. And we have all the knowledge and technology that ‘gardening’ requires. We even have the biological capability to comprehend our situation. So all that’s still lacking is cultural. We cannot turn the homo sapiens‘s prerogatives into an advantage because we live in a culture of meaninglessness—as Neil Postman observed.
The word “meme” is familiar to Noah. Kids share “memes” daily on mobile phones. It remained to tell him that a meme is, originally, a ‘cultural gene’, a unit of cultural reproduction and evolution.
When the water was drying out in a lake, some water animals developed a new ability and gene—to breathe on dry land. That’s how natural abilities evolved.
We need a similar development in culture.
We vitally need a new meme.
That’s what holotopia is about.
That’s why we began the holotopia description by pointing to the missing meme.
The meme is to use correct understanding of the situation to motivate action.
That metaphorical image in the opening of holotopia description, the bus with candle headlights, renders the nature of our situation—and points to what we must do to transform it. We are the people traveling in that bus. And we are also creating the bus. We must see things whole (most importantly the big and important things, such as our civilization, or culture, which is what the bus represents); and we must use correct vision to make things whole (the bus needs new headlights; we need to change the relationship we have with information).
During the past century scholars used a variety of keywords and slogans to point to this missing meme: “guided evolution of society”; “conscious evolution”; “systemic innovation”…
At the point when I was telling this to Noah, holotopia was branded as “an actionable strategy” to foster the missing meme.
Noah and I were so pleasantly in conversation that it seemed natural to share also the good news:
The problems we are talking about do have solutions; which are more than solutions.
When we look at our problems in a scientific way (when we see their structural or systemic causes)—we see solutions that vastly improve our condition.
That’s the beauty, the magic, of holotopia. ‘Gardening’ is possible! And it leads to opportunities we didn’t dare to dream of!
Considering the importance of this matter, in the holotopia description we conscientiously elaborated the details; and presented them as five insights.
The five insights show that a magnificent new phase of human evolution lies ahead.
And we don’t even need to wait for the world to change to enjoy its benefits!
What I especially like about holotopia is that it changes our situation instantly—by empowering us to be creative on the level that may seem unthinkable.
Holotopia is a creative frontier with inexhaustible possibilities.
But I prefer to ground such intoxicating claims (which I have to make, because they are holotopia‘s very essence) in real-life stories. They illustrate holotopia‘s realness by showing what hinders us from realizing it.
So I completed my state of the world 2021 report to Noah by sharing parts of The Incredible History of Doug Engelbart; which, Noah knows, will be properly told in the second book of the holotopia series.
This story vividly illustrates what happens when a person who has worked on holotopia‘s creative frontier harvests its fruits; and offers them to his contemporaries who are still “just living” in the conventional paradigm.
Where the faculty of visions has atrophied so much that an idea can only be comprehended by fitting it in the “reality” we see around us. So that even the best of us “just don’t get it”, as Engelbart used to say.
So that only a mouse can be seen—and the elephant in the room is ignored.
Already in 1951 Engelbart saw how a breakthrough toward our urgently needed meme could be made. And in 1968, in “The Mother of All Demos”, he and his SRI lab demonstrated the technology that enabled that breakthrough.
Engelbart also explained how the mother of all problems could be solved.
I showed Noah how Engelbart attempted to issue “a call to action” to achieve those timely tasks, at a panel that was organized for him in 2007 at Google. And how his message was misinterpreted, and his call to action ignored.
A vast gap separated what was told at Google, and what should have been told—as already the title of this event’s recording, “Inventing the Computer Mouse”, illustrates. So that’s what Engelbart should be remembered for!
Engelbart’s title slide and first three slides, which were intended to set the stage for all the rest by explaining the nature of his vision—were not even shown at Google! “So, you’re gonna do slides?”, Jeff Rulifson asked—and in the same breath ignored the slides.
(There was also a lady on the panel, Mei Lin Fung, I should mention before we continue. Mei Lin remained silent until the audience was to be involved. I am positive that she prepared those slides with Doug’s assistance, as the order in which the panelists were named suggests. Mei Lin was in no position to take the microphone and insist…)
So let’s have a look at those ignored slides.
The title made it clear that “a call to action” was about to be made, and that “Bootstrap Alliance” was behind it. What action? We’ll come back to that in a moment.
The first slide pointed out that new thinking was necessary, if “digital technology” should “help make this a better world”. What new thinking? You’ll notice that the second slide pointed to the missing meme we’ve been talking about, and even that a similar metaphor was used. Let’s recapitulate: Instead of using technology to create things that “seem like fun”, which people “want”, which bring revenue—we look at the relevant large whole, such as our society, and ask:
What is still missing to make it functional, safe, beneficial, or in a word—whole?
The third slide pointed to Engelbart’s key technical contribution—by explaining why the technology he created enables us to make exactly that kind of difference, on a magnificent scale! Why it enables the kind of knowledge work we now need to be able to effectively co-create meaning, and solutions and whatever else is needed (as I already explained in this blog).
The sixth slide was meant to introduce Engelbart’s ingenious methodology for systemic innovation or “new thinking” or “guided evolution of society” or ‘gardening’. In 1968 Erich Jantsch would convene an expert team in Bellagio, Italy, to create such a methodology. At that point systemic innovation was identified as the meme we needed to foster to be able to respond to contemporary issues, or to “predicament of mankind” as The Club of Rome called them.
Systemic innovation is ‘gardening’.
Engelbart published his systemic innovation methodology in 1962, six years earlier! And then went on to demonstrate its value through numerous applications.
Slide 6 was shown at Google—but out of context.
We are now touching upon the core of Engelbart’s legacy.
So how should we use our so impressively grown capability to create and induce change, or in a word, to innovate—if it should benefit us rather than harm us?
What was Engelbart’s systemic innovation methodology?
I asked Noah to imagine a human being with no knowledge, technology or culture. The “basic” capabilities we humans have are so limited! I asked him to think of everything else that makes us human as our “augmentation systems”, which have a cultural or “human” and a technological or “tool” side. The purpose of those augmentation systems is to “augment” our native capabilities.
Imagine, for illustration, that the capability that was marked red in Slide 6 was to communicate in writing. Clearly, this capability depended on some technology such as clay tablets or paper and pencil or the printing press; and on “human system” capabilities such as literacy and education.
Imagine now Engelbart applying this “new thinking” to our contemporary situation. And diagnosing that the mother of all problems is our inability to effectively co-create and share meaning. To understand the nature of a situation early enough, and act effectively. Imagine Engelbart marking that capability red. And then asking: What capabilities do we need to foster first, to be able to significantly augment that all-important one?
Imagine him observing: “If we connect everyone to a digital device directly, through an interactive interface, and then connect those devices in a network—people will be able to think and create together, and incomparably faster and more effectively than they do now.
I asked Noah to observe that although we now have that technology, we still use it to communicate as we used to. We, academic researchers, still write books and articles. A journalist still works alone, and looks for a sensation that will interest his readers. Together, we “generate tons of information every hour”, without asking What do the people out there really need to know, if our society should function and have a future?
Then I asked Noah to imagine that Engelbart, at the point where his career was ending, applied his method one more time, to see what remained to be done to give our society the faculty of vision. And that he came up with his call to action in that way.
What is that action?
The tool system capabilities needed to enable the important capability already being in place, we still lack the human system capability to self-organize and collaborate and create meaning. To create and use knowledge in ways that the new technology allows—and our situation demands.
That’s what “bootstrapping” is about. The only way real-life systems can be changed is if the people using them self-organize differently.
I asked Noah to imagine the bootstrapping frontier—where is it? Then I traced a line across our floor, and said that the frontier was passing right through our room. I showed him the public informing prototype we drafted in Barcelona, where the readers point to problems, and academic experts to systemic causes and solutions. I told him about our other prototypes. And about my conversation with Doug.
It was at that point that Noah decided to join holotopia.
And that holotopia became not only an actionable strategy, and also a buddying project and initiative.
If you’ve followed me this far, and trust that I am committed to live in the reality of our situation and act as it demands, you might appreciate the sincere sharing that follows; and perhaps even the nuance I will point to, however softly.
There is a meme we have to foster before we can give birth to the all-important one we’ve been talking about. And before we can build holotopia. It’s what Aurelio Peccei branded “human quality”, and on his dying day identified as the important challenge.
To see why, we must understand how self-centeredness or egotism, disguised as “just living”, came to dominate our culture. And why—as long as that is the case—we are incapable not only of self-organizing, but also of comprehending our situation correctly. Our embodied values control us more than we know—and make us act in ways that are contrary to the values we consciously uphold.
The five insights sum up the theory we need to understand that. Daily experience—as The Incredible History of Doug Engelbart illustrates, and numerous other anecdotes we’ve collected or lived through—provides circumstantial evidence.
To be with people who don’t act as our situation demands is dis–empowering.
This is why I decided to postpone project work and focus on writing; until someone who really means it shows up.
The Liberation book will explain why, and how, we can and must liberate ourselves.
As I wrote in its description, holotopia will then address the “human quality” challenge strategically and directly.
As a culture building project, and an act of transgenerational empowerment, holotopia must have a strong core. With Noah, our project team is minimally complete.
“Why don’t you and I explain Engelbart’s call to action, by interpreting his slides?” Noah proposed. And I enthusiastically agreed.
Engelbart’s vision was of ‘the king is naked’ kind. Perhaps we’ll “get it” when we hear it from a kid.
“I can’t wait to tell Tyson about this”, Noah told me on our last day together, while he was preparing to leave.
I was curious to hear which of all the things we talked about he thought would be exciting news to his friend. Can you guess?
It’s that scientists still work and communicate by writing articles!
He and Tyson play Scrap Mechanic together. The game allows them to co-create complex things while sitting each in his room—and to design the way they collaborate.
Engelbart was unable to explain his vision to IT professionals and academics. These youngsters can’t see how it could be otherwise!
In the bus, while following him to his mother, I told Noah how much I looked forward to completing the Liberation book. And that writing now flows so well, that a readable draft might be ready by the end of the month.
In the holotopia strategy, its role is to tear down the wall of silence and put the ball in play.
“Don’t rush”, Noah advised me. “It has to be good!”