- 1 Federation through Stories
- 1.1 Information technology and innovation
- 1.2 The nature of our stories
- 1.3 The incredible history of Doug
- 1.5 The incredible history of Eric
- 1.7 The future of innovation
- 1.8 Engelbart's legacy
- 1.9 The future has already begun
- 1.10 See
Federation through Stories
Information technology and innovation
Liberating and directing creative work
On our main page we suggested that when we liberate our creative work in general, and our knowledge work in particular, from subservience to age-old patterns and routines and outmoded assumptions, and then motivate it and orient it differently, a sweeping Renaissance– like change may be expected to result. We motivated this observation, and our initiative, by three large changes that took place during the past century – of epistemology, of information technology, and of our society's condition and information needs. In Federation through Images we took up the first motive. Here our theme will be the second one.
In Federation through Images we used the image of a bus with candle headlights to make a sweepingly large claim: When innovation, or creative work in general, is "knowledge-based" and directed as it may best improve or complete the larger whole in which what is being innovated has a role, then the difference this may make, the benefits that may result to our society, are similar as the benefits of substituting light bulbs for candles may be to the people in that bus.
There is, however, an obvious alternative – and that is what is in effect today. It is to simply have everyone act as it may best further (what they perceive as) their "personal interests" – and trust that the "free competition" or "the survival of the fittest" or "the invisible hand" of the market will turn that into common good. The real-life stories we are about to tell will help us make a case for an informed and more sober alternative.
The nature of our stories
They illustrate a larger point
We choose our stories to serve as parables. In a fractal-like manner, each of them will reflect – from a specific angle, of course – the entire situation our creative work and specifically knowledge work is in. So just as the case was with ideograms, stories too can be worth one thousand words. They too can condense and vividly display a wealth of insight. Bring to mind again the iconic image of Galilei in house prison, whispering eppur si muove into his beard. The stories we are about to tell will suggest that also in our own time similar situations and dynamics are at play.
They lift up ideas of giants
How to lift up a core insights of a giant out of undeserved anonymity? We tell vignettes – lively, catchy, sticky... real-life people and situation stories. They are the kind of stories one might want to tell to an assembly of friends over a glass of vine. Their role is to distill core ideas of daring thinkers from the vocabulary of a discipline, and give them the visibility and appeal they deserve. If you are like us, weary of Donald Trump-style sensations in the media, then you might be glad to find here sensations of a completely new kind – that are in a truest sense good news, and also relevant! And with completely different protagonists! Our sensations will bring to the foreground some of our most innovative and daring thinkers, and make them a subject of conversations. What they'll have to say will give us the power of think new thoughts and handle large and small issues in completely new ways.
By joining vignettes together into threads, and threads into patterns and patterns into a gestalt – we can create an overarching view of any situation, and of our historical, global situation at large – and see in a completely new light how those situations may need to be handled.
The incredible history of Doug
How the Silicon Valley failed to understand its giant in residence
Before we go into the details of this story, let's take a moment to see how it works as a parable. The story is about how the Silicon Valley failed to understand and even hear its giant or genius in residence, even after having recognized him as such! This makes the story emblematic: The Silicon Valley is the world's hottest innovation hub. The paradigm shifts have, on the other hand, always been opportunities for creative new actors, for unconventional and daring thinkers and does, to emerge as new leaders. Could the large paradigm shift we've been talking about indeed be an opportunity for new actors to take the lead – even in technological innovation?
Douglas Engelbart, the main protagonist of this story, is not only knowledge federation's iconic progenitor or "patron saint"; to quite a few of us he has also been a revered friend. Among us we call him "Doug". So we'll continue this tradition sporadically also on these pages.
Engelbart too stood on the shoulders of giants
It is in the spirit of knowledge federation to at least mention the giants on whose shoulders Engelbart was standing. We'll here mention only one, whom we also need to lift up as an icon. Vannevar Bush was a scientist and a scientific strategist par excellence, who pointed to the urgent need for (what we are calling) knowledge federation – already in 1945!
A pre-WW2 pioneer of computing machinery, and professor and dean at the MIT, During the war Bush served as the leader of the entire US scientific effort – supervising about 6000 leading scientists, and assuring that the Free World is a step ahead in developing all imaginable weaponry including The Bomb. And so in 1945, the war just barely being finished, Bush wrote an article titled "As We May Think", where the tone is "OK, we've won the great war. But one other problem still remains to which we scientists now need to give the highest priority – and that is to recreate what we do with knowledge after it's been published". He urged the scientists to focus on developing suitable technology and processes.
Engelbart heard him. He read Bush's article in 1947, as a young army recruit, in a Red Cross library in the Philippines, and it helped him 'see the light' a couple of years later. But Bush's article inspired in part also another development – and that's what we'll turn to next.
Having decided, as a novice engineer in December of 1950, to direct his career so as to maximize its benefits to the mankind, Douglas Engelbart thought intensely for three months about the best way to do that. Then he had an epiphany.
On a convention of computer professionals in 1968 Engelbart and his SRI-based lab demonstrated the computer technology we are using today – computers linked together into a network, people interacting with computers via video terminals and a mouse and windows – and through them with one another.
In the 1990s it was finally understood (or in any case some people understood) that it was not Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who invented the technology, or even the XEROS PARC, from where they took it. Engelbart received all imaginable honors that an inventor can have. Yet he made it clear, and everyone around him knew, that he felt celebrated for a wrong reason. And that the gist of his vision had not yet been understood, or put to use. "Engelbart's unfinished revolution" was coined as the theme for the 1998 Stanford University celebration of his Demo. And it stuck.
The man whose ideas made "the revolution in the Valley" possible passed away in 2013 – feeling that he had failed.
What is it that Engelbart saw? How important is it? Why was he not understood?
We'll answer by zooming in on one of the many events where Engelbart was celebrated, and when his vision was in the spotlight – a videotaped panel that was organized for him at Google in 2007. This will give us an opportunity to explain his vision – if not in his own words, then at least with his own Powerpoint slides. Here is how his presentation was intended to begin.
Around that time it became clear that Engelbart's long career was coming to an end. By choosing title "A Call to Action!", Engelbart obviously intended make it clear that what he wanted to give to Google, and to the world through Google, was a direction and a call to pursue it.
The first slide pointed to a large and as yet unfulfilled opportunity that is immanent in digital technology. The digital technology can help make this a better world! But to realize this potential of technology, we need to change our way of thinking.
The second slide was meant to explain the nature of this different thinking, and why we needed it. The slide points to a direction. Doug talks about a 'vehicle' we are riding in. You'll notice that part of the message here is the same as in our Modernity ideogram, which we discussed at length in Federation through Images. But there's also more; the vehicle has inadequate "steering and braking controls". We'll come back to that further below.
The third slide was there to point to Doug's way to remedy this problem. It sets the stage for explaining the essence of Doug's vision; for understanding the purpose and the value of his many technical ideas and contributions, which is what the remainder of the slides were about; and ultimately for his call to action.
The 20th century printing press
The printing press is a suitable metaphor for explaining the substance of of Engelbart's vision, as put forth in his third slide – and its role in the larger picture, in the emerging larger paradigm. Gutenberg's invention is sometimes mentioned as the main factor that led to the Enlightenment – by making knowledge sharing incomparably more efficient. What invention might play a similar role today?
"The answer is obvious", we imagine you say, "It's the Web!" "Of course it's the Web", Engelbart might have answered, as he indeed did in his very first slide. "But we've also got to change our way of thinking." Doug's second slide pointed to systemic thinking as the new thinking that needs to be used. His third slide was there to explain exactly why this new thinking is the key to making a radically better use of information technology. Considering the importance of this matter, you'll grant us the time and the pleasure of taking a closer look at each of its three paragraphs.
The first paragraph sets the stage for Doug's core discovery.
Many years ago I dreamed that digital technology could greatly augment our collective human capabilities for dealing with complex, urgent problems.Doug's observation posited on his second slide, that our civilization was rushing into the future at an accelerating speed, led him to identify the accelerated or "exponential" growth of a single factor, "complexity times urgency", as a core challenge to be tackled by "augmenting our collective intelligence".
The second paragraph frames the core of Engelbart's vision.
Computers, high-speed communications, displays, interfaces—as if suddenly, in an evolutionary sense, we are getting a super new nervous system to upgrade our collective social organisms."A super new nervous system!" The reference here is to the completely new capability that the new media technology affords us. Doug called it CoDIAK (for Concurrent Development, Integration and Application of Knowledge). The key point is in the word "concurrent". We are linked together in such a way that we can think together and create together – as if we were nerve cells in a single organism. You put something on the Web and instantly anyone in the world can see it! People can be subscribed and be notified. You may have a question – someone else may have an answer... Compare this to the printing press – which could only vastly speed up what the people (the scribes, or the monks in the monasteries) were already doing – copying manuscripts. But the principle of operation remained the same – publishing! But when we are all connected to each other through interactive media technology – completely new processes become possible. And as we shall see – also necessary!
To see how this may help us deal with complexity and urgency of problems, imagine your own organism going toward a wall. (You may think this matter is simple – but we know scientifically that there is some quite complex processing of sensory data that leads to this gestalt.) Imagine now that your eyes see that something is wrong, but are trying to communicate it to the brain by publishing research articles in some specialized field of science. Imagine furthermore that the cells in your nervous system have not specialized and organized themselves to make sense of impulses, filter out the less relevant ones... Imagine that everyone in your body is using the nervous system to merely broadcast information! Would you be confused? Well that's exactly the condition in which the development of information technology has brought us to.
The third paragraph points to the unfulfilled part, which remained only a dream.
I dreamed that people could seriously appreciate the potential of harnessing the technological and social nervous system to improve the collective IQ of our various organizations.Technological and social nervous system. Doug never tired of emphasizing that what the technology does and what the people do must evolve together. And that progress of the "tools system" has not been paralleled with a similar progress of the "human system".
The incredible part
There are several points that make this history of Doug in a true sense incredible. The first one is that he had this epiphany already in 1951, when there were only a handful of computers in the world, and (practically) nobody had seen one. Those computers were gigantic monsters made out of old-fashioned radio tubes; and they served exclusively for scientific calculations in large labs such as Los Alamos. At that point Doug saw people linked to computers via interactive video terminals, and through computers to each other, through an interactive network.
The other incredible point is that he tried for more than a half-century to explain his insight to the Silicon Valley – and failed!
We like to point out that on the many occasions where Engelbart was talking, or being celebrated, there was an 'invisible elephant' in the room (we use this metaphor, of an invisible elephant, to point to the large societal paradigm that is emerging from the fog of our awareness). What Engelbart was pointing toward (just look at the above photo), where he wanted to take us by issuing his "call to action" (as we shall see in more detail below) was a whole new paradigm – first of all in IT innovation, then in creative work, and then in the evolution of our knowledge, and by extension in the evolution of our society at large. What he ended up with was a mere little mouse!
If you now google Engelbart's 2007 presentation at Google and watch the recording of the event and its presentation on Youtube, you will see that Doug is introduced as "the inventor of the computer mouse"; that no call to action was mentioned; and that the four slides we showed above – which were (as we shall see below) needed to understand the meaning and the value of his technical contributions, not to speak of those not yet seen and implemented ones – were not even shown on this event!
The invisible elephant
And so it turned out that every time Doug was giving a talk, or being celebrated, there was (metaphorically speaking – we use single quotes to enclose our metaphors) an 'invisible elephant' in the room. A huge exotic animal in the midst of an urban lecture hall – should this not be a major sensation? But alas, the elephant remained invisible! And so while our hero was enthusiastically describing this yet unseen animal's ears and trunk and tail, the audience heard him only talk about a fan and a hose and a rope. Naturally, they failed to make the connections.
A story worth telling
You may now see some of the reasons why we found this history worth telling. One of them is that it's a true sensation when we properly understand it, and also a most relevant one – because it points to paradigm-related cognitive impediments, which hinder even the smartest and most successful among us to understand or even to hear (for an entire half-century!) an insight whose nature is to challenge and shift the prevailing paradigm (think of Galilei in prison).
Another reason – why we told this story on multiple occasions, for example as a springboard story at the opening of the Leadership and Systemic Innovation PhD program at the Buenos Aires Institute of Technology, which we'll come back to further below. So many economies and regions around the globe tried, and often failed, to transplant the entrepreneurial culture and activity of the Silicon Valley to their own soil. This story shows that something else – something much larger indeed – may be not only possible but also easy; something that the Silicon Valley failed to achieve or even understand – owing to the idiosyncrasies of its culture.
The incredible history of Eric
However incredible the story we've just told might appear (a very smart man trying to communicate a very important insight to a whole community of very smart folks, and (to use the expression for which Doug was notorious) "they just didn't get it!" – the story does have a simple explanation: A shared paradigm (consistency with a set of basic assumptions) is what enables us to communicate. The seemingly naive metaphor in Doug's second slide, the image of a vehicle in which we ride toward our future, points to a whole new paradigm in the way in which we use our creative capabilities. Consider the way the things are presently done: A scientists learns how to do physics, or biology, and does that. A journalist, similarly, learns the trade of media reporting from the past-generation journalists. There is no awareness of a larger, systemic purpose involved, no possibility of adapting what we do to that purpose. With every new generation, we are just passing on those 'candles'.
Technological innovation is presently driven by "market needs": What are the scientists doing? What do the journalists need? We can use new technology to have them do those things incomparably easier and faster!
In his second slide, Doug was pointing to a radical alternative. Information, knowledge work, and information technology, have systemic roles and purposes. Information must be perceived as a system within a system. We must configure our way of handling it as it may best suit its vitally important roles in the larger systems – so that the larger systems may fulfill their vitally important roles.
There's a message on an even higher level in Doug's second slide – that one whole category of human activities, of decisive importance to our future, cannot be driven by age-old habits, or "the market"; that it must become "systemic" or informed. And when it does, that it will serve us incomparably better and more safely than it does, guide us toward an incomparably better future. But this – as Naomi Klein observed – changes everything! It changes the most important meme or gene in our 'cultural DNA'! We are not in the habit of using information to make this sort of basic, directional choices. To get there will require one whole evolutionary quantum leap. But isn't that what we've been talking about all along?
Hence the difficulty in communicating it. We don't come to a lecture to hear that sort of thing! We are all far too busy to ever come back to such basics. We come to a talk to get a technical idea – and perhaps implement it in the new system we are building. Not to learn that the very direction of technological innovation has to change! We have no time, and no place to such messages. And hence we just ignore them.
But here our goal is to change that practice. We've now heard Doug's basic message. But can we rely on it? In what follows we'll begin to connect the dots. We'll connect his vision with the insights of other giants. We'll begin to see the emerging order of things in which the mentioned details will make perfect sense. We'll begin to draft the elephant.
Connecting the dots
Erich Jantsch, the main protagonist of the story we are about to share, will here serve as an icon for those very insights that Doug's audiences were lacking, to be able to understand what he was talking about. It's what we've been calling systemic innovation. We shall see his insights were so similar to Doug's, and his story so parallel to his, that we couldn't help calling it "the incredible history of Eric". Jantsch was, however, focusing on questions that were complementary to Doug's: What properties do our large and basic systems (such as our civilization at large, or Doug's 'vehicle') need to be safe or governable or sustainable or simply "good"? In what way should we intervene into those systems so that they may acquire those properties? Who – and in what way, that is, by what methods – should do such interventions?
Having received his doctorate in astrophysics at the tender age of 22, from the University of Vienna, Erich Jantsch realized that it is here on Earth that his attention is needed. And so he ended up researching, for the OECD in Paris, the theme that animates our initiative (how our ability to create and induce change can be directed far more purposefully and effectively). Jantsch's specific focuse was on the ways in which technology was being developed and introduced in different countries, the OECD members. Jantsch and the OECD called this issue "technological planning". Is it only the market? Or is there some way we can more effectively direct the development and use of the rapidly growing muscles of our technology?
So when The Club of Rome (a global think tank where a hundred selected international and interdisciplinary members do research into the future prospects of mankind) was about to be initiated, in 1968, it was natural to invite Jantsch to give the opening keynote.
Immediately after the opening of The Club of Rome Jantsch made himself busy crafting solutions. By following him through three steps of this process, we shall be able to identify three core insights, three key pieces in our 'elephant puzzle', for which Jantsch must be credited.
But before we do that, we'll give due credit to a couple of giants whose insights helped Jantsch see further.
What our systems must be like
A scientific reader may have noticed that Engelbart's innocent metaphor in Slide 2 has a technical or scientific interpretation. In cybernetics, which is a scientific study of (the relationship between information and) control, "feedback" and "control" are household terms. Just as the bus must have functioning headlights and steering and braking controls, so must any system have suitable feedback (inflow of suitable information), and suitable control (a way to apply the incoming information to correct its course or functioning or behavior) – if it is to be steerable or viable or "sustainable".
Norbert Wiener is a suitable iconic giant to represent (the vision that inspired) cybernetics for us. Wiener studied mathematics, zoology and philosophy, and finally got his doctorate in mathematical logic from Harvard – when he was only 17! Then he went on to do seminal work in a number of fields – one of which was cybernetics.
In the final chapter of his 1948 book Cybernetics, titled "Information, Language and Society", Wiener puts forth two insights that are of central interest to our story.
The first is that our communication (or feedback loop) is broken. Wiener does that by citing Vannevar Bush's article "As We May Think", which – as we have seen – also inspired Engelbart. And also in another way, as we'll see next.
Wiener's second insight is that the market won't give us control. Wiener federates this insight by citing another giant, John von Neumann (whose many seminal contributions include the design of the basic architecture of the digital computer, which is still in use), and his results (with Oskar Morgenstern) in the theory of games. And by discussing common experience. Wiener's argument has the form "see what my estimable colleagues have found out; doesn't this explain the dynamics we have been witnessing daily? Here we have further evidence that indeed our communication is broken!"
But let's listen to Wiener's tone. Isn't he suggesting that some deep and power-related prejudices are at play (recall Galilei...):
You may understood Wiener's technical keyword "homeostatic process" as what a system must maintain to be (as we now call it) "sustainable". It's been defined as "feedback mechanism inducing measures to keep a system continuing".
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 seeking to sell as high and buy as low as possible, will result in the end of a stable dynamics of prices, and with redound to 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 reward with which society has showered him. Unfortunately, the evidence, such as it is, is against this simple-minded theory.
Planning as feedback, systemic innovation as control
With a doctorate in physics, it was not difficult to Jantsch to put two and two together and see what needed to be done. If our civilization is on a disastrous course, and if it lacks suitable "headlights and braking and steering controls) or (to use a cybernetician's more scientific tone) "feedback and control" – then there's a single capability that we as society are lacking, which can correct this problem – the capability to look into the future, and steer the way by correcting our systems.
So right after The Club of Rome's first meeting, Jantsch gathered a group of creative leaders and researchers, mostly from the systems community, in Bellagio, Italy, to put together necessary insights and methods. The result was so basic that Jantsch called it "rational creative action". The message is obvious and central to our interest: Certainly there are many ways in which we can be creative. But if our creative action is to be rational – then these essential ingredients must be present.
Rational creative action begins with forecasting, which explores different future scenario; it ends with an action selected to enhance the likelihood of the desired scenario or scenarios. So what they called "planning" (notice that this had nothing to do with the kind of planning that was at the time used in the Soviet Union) was envisioned as the new and enhanced feedback that our society lacked in order to have control over its future:
[T]he pursuance of orthodox planning is quite insufficient, in that it seldom does more than touch a system through changes of the variables. Planning must be concerned with the structural design of the system itself and involved in the formation of policy.”
Policies, which are the objective of planning (as the authors of the Bellagio Declaration envisioned it) specify both the institutional changes and the norms and value changes that might be necessary to make our goal-oriented action in a true sense rational and creative (Jantsch, 1970):
Policies are the first expressions and guiding images of normative thinking and action. In other words, they are the spiritual agents of change—change not only in the ways and means by which bureaucracies and technocracies operate, but change in the very institutions and norms which form their homes and castles.”
The emerging role of the university
The next question in Jantsch's stream of thought and action was roughly this: If systemic innovation is a necessary new capability that our systems and our civilization at large now require, then who – that is, what institution – may be the most natural and best qualified to foster this capability? Jantsch concluded that the university (institution) will have to be the answer. And that to be able to fulfill this role, the university itself will need to update its own system.
[T]he university should make structural changes within itself toward a new purpose of enhancing the society’s capacity for continuous self-renewal. It may have to become a political institution, interacting with government and industry in the planning and designing of society’s systems, and controlling the outcomes of the introduction of technology into those systems. This new leadership role of the university should provide an integrated approach to world systems, particularly the ‘joint systems’ of society and technology.”In 1969 Jantsch spent a semester at the MIT, writing a 150-page report about the future of the university, from which the above excerpt was taken, and lobbying with the faculty and the administration to begin to develop this new way of thinking and working in academic practice.
Evolution is the key
In the 1970s Jantsch lived in Berkeley, wrote prolifically, and taught occasional seminars at the U.C. Berkeley. This period of his life and work was marked by a new insight, which was triggered by his experiences with working on global / systemic change, and some profound scientific insights brought to him, initially, by Ilya Prigogine, the Nobel laureate scientist who visited Berkeley in 1972. Put very briefly, this involves two closely related insights:
- we cannot – that is, nobody can – recreate the large systems including the largest, our civilization, in any way directly; where we can make a difference – and hence where we must focus on – is their evolution;
- the living and evolving systems are governed by an entirely different dynamic than physical systems – which needs to be understood</il>
Jantsch was especially interested in understanding the relationship between our – that is, people's values and ways of being, and our evolution. He saw us as entering the "evolutionary paradigm". Bela Banathy cited him extensively in "Guided Evolution of Society". The title of Jantsch's 1975 book "Design for Evolution" points unequivocally in the same direction as our four core keywords. The keyword systemic innovation we adopted from him directly.
The incredible part
Norbert Wiener was of course not alone in observing that a meta-discipline was needed, that would (1) provide a common language and body of knowledge for communication among and beyond the sciences and (2) provide us an understanding of systems, so that we may secure that they the core socio-technical systems we are creating are suitably structured, and thereby also "sustainable". Von Bertalanffy reached similar conclusions from the venture point of mathematical biology; and so did a number of others, in their own way. In 1954 Bertalanffy was joined by biologist Ralph Gerard, economist Kenneth Boulding and mathematician Anatol Rapoport at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences – and they created an organization that later included (as a federation) most of the others including cybernetics, and became the International Society for the Systems Sciences. Realizing the importance of this new frontier, many brave young women and men joined the systems movement, and the body of research grew immensely.
The research in the part of games theory that Wiener found especially interesting also subsequently exploded. During the 1950s more than a thousand research articles were published on the so-called "prisoner's dilemma". The message from this research that will be for our story can be found in the opening of the corresponding Wikipedia page: It is that perfectly rational competition, where everyone maximizes the personal gain, can lead to a condition where everyone is worth off than what would be reached through cooperation.
Erich Jantsch spent the last decade of his life living in Berkeley, teaching sporadic seminars at U.C. Berkeley and writing prolifically. Ironically, the man who with such passion and insight wrote about how the university would need to change to help us master our future, and lobbied for such change – never found a home and sustenance for his work at the university.
In 1980 Jantsch published two books with a wealth of insights on "evolutionary paradigm" – whose purpose was to inform the evolutionary path of our society; he passed away after a short illness, only 51 years old. An obituarist commented that his unstable income and inadequate nutrition might have been a factor. In his will Jantsch asked that his ashes be tossed into the ocean, "the cradle of evolution".
In that same year Ronald Reagan became the 40th U.S. president on the agenda that the market, or the free competition, is the only thing we can rely on. That same "simple-minded theory", as Norbert Wiener called it, marks our political life still today. It is also what directs our technological innovation and creative work in general, and hence also our travel into the future.
"As long as a paradox is treated as a problem," David Bohm wrote, "it can never be dissolved." We must recognize that what we are witnessing is a paradox and not a problem. Indeed, this paradox might well be identified as "the mother of all problems" – or at least the characteristic problems that mark our era.
In her 2014 keynote to the American Society for Cybernetics, Mary Catherine Bateson – the daughter of two prominent forefathers of cybernetics and of the systems movement, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson – observed that cybernetics should not really organize itself as a scientific discipline; that its main reason for existence is "cognitive therapy" – to help us the people overcome a cognitive illusion we acquire in early childhood, namely that the direct cause-effect relationships we perceive are the only thing that matters.
At the 2015, at the 59th yearly meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, with Mary Cathrine Bateson also present, we presented a talk titled "Wiener's paradox – we can dissolve it together". Our point was that the very first thing that the world needed to hear from the systems movement, the one that Wiener reported already in 1948 (that we cannot and should not trust "the market" to direct our ride into the future; that systemic insights and action must necessarily be used if we want this ride to be "sustainable"), the one that is necessary for the whole opus of the systems sciences to become socially relevant and impactful – has not yet been communicated. And that to dissolve the paradox, the traditional-academic organization and activities (that evolved within traditional academic disciplines for an entirely different purpose) will not be sufficient – and that some systemic self-organization, or what Engelbart called "bootstrapping" (see below) will be necessary.
But we also use this keyword, Wiener's paradox, in a broader sense – to signify that the entire academic enterprise might now find itself in a similarly paradoxical situation.
The future of innovation
A way of looking
By innovation we mean creative action that makes a difference in the world, that induces change. We have adapted this most common business concept to our needs – when an idea (insight, invention...) becomes hard-wired in our daily reality, when it has made a difference, then it becomes an "innovation".
Notice that innovation is what drives our societal and cultural evolution; it's the movement of our metaphorical 'bus' or Engelbart's 'common economic-political vehicle' in which we ride into the future.
Innovation has a result which we have hitherto ignored. This thing has been a kind of a casualty, a collateral damage, a side effect... of our "successes in business", of the present way in which we've been evolving and innovating and conducting affaires. Not because it's a small detail – on the contrary! It's because it's so large that we don't see it! Like a mountain on which we may be walking, it determines what and how we see things – but it's not something we can see from the place where we stand. It's what Banathy called "the systems in which we live and work".
So we have a maaaaajor challenge – to make that thing visible to us the people! We gave our communication design team that challenge, and here is what they came up with.
The original image was partly animated. But anyhow, this image is a placeholder for a core knowledge federation challenge.
The insight that this System ideogram is meant to convey is to help us see ourselves as parts or clogs or nuts and bolts in those large systems. Seen as the systems in which we work, they are those large economic-political 'mechanisms' whose purpose is to take our daily work as input, and produce socially useful effects as output. Seen as the systems in which we live, they determine not only the quality of our lives – but also the very course, the very nature of our lives.
How are those systems? How have they been evolving?
And this is where – to acquire and complete the insight we are talking about here – we need quite a bit more courage, more presence of spirit, more patience to stay focused, than what most of us are able to gather at this point. Those large things are not only our "reality" – they even determine how we see reality, and what we consider to be real. How can we dare to question them, to examine them? And yet that is what we must do.
A likely result, when we've gone through this exercise – and you'll find ample material and evidence on these pages to get us started – is a two-sided coin. And the value of this coin is beyond astronomical – it's our future, and our world!
- "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them," said Einstein. Systemic thinking – or perhaps better said systemic innovation as systemic thinking in action – offers itself as a natural or informed alternative. If we now follow this alternative for just one step, if we begin to apply it – as we just did – then Einstein's most famous word of wisdom can be paraphrased as "We cannot solve our problems with the same systems we used when we created them." If you are still frowning, more evidence – a lot more evidence will be provided on these pages; and an invitation to resolve the remaining hesitancies in a conversation. And so on the one side we find that learning to see and update those systems is a necessary condition for our future. Like evil masters, those gigantic things have been flagrantly and mercilessly misusing our daily work, and turning it against us! And this is true not only for the 99%, but also for the 1%!
- On the other side we find something even much more spectacular – something which truly requires daring, unusual independence of spirit... to see. And that is that the possibilities for improvement are properly speaking enormous! We don't need to work so hard (not at all)! We don't need to stress and strive and compete. Imagine – just imagine – that 90%, perhaps even 99% of our work may be spent for not better purpose than spinning the wheels of an obsolete and largely dysfunctional "economic-political" 'machinery'! <p>If you follow this line of thought just a few steps further, perhaps with the help of the links provided below and all the rest that's been said on these pages – you will have no difficulty understanding why improvements in our condition, in the efficiency and effectiveness of our work, similar to the ones that have been reached through the Industrial Revolution, may be reached by this approach. You will also have no difficulty – especially with the help of the extensive portfolio of examples or prototypes provided in Federation through Applications – seeing how this new creative frontier will open up a wealth of new possibilities for a broad variety of creative contributions including social entrepreneurship, business and research. You may then indeed be (and you perhaps already are) perplexed by another question – why has this possibility been so consistently ignored, and for such a long time? This indeed most interesting question too can be answered by federating knowledge – by putting together insights from the giants in the humanities. We have initiated this exercise by developing The Paradigm Strategy Poster, which we'll use to initiate our conversations.
So the insight we are talking about is properly speaking a civilizational, or evolutionary, turning point!
This turning point begins to act on us and grow into a sweeping change as soon as we begin to look still deeper, and (with the help of the insights of last century's giants) – begin to probe into the nature of our evolutionary and systemic blindness. What we've hitherto perceived as "objective reality" becomes seen as a result of our socialization – and an instrument of our socialization by which our systems, our unseen and incompassionate 'masters', are keeping us at bay. Paradigmatic changes naturally and readily follow.
A rule of thumb
We are here talking about first of all liberating creative work from that obsolete 'machinery', from being caught up in it – and then using it in an informed way, directing it, so that it may TRULY serve a good purpose.
See (once again – we may be repeating ourselves, but we'll fix that...) how innovation is done today. In the sciences we obey to our disciplines. In public informing we learn to do certain kind of reporting. Those things evolve slowly, as the market (the modern 'god' to which we the people pay allegiance) dictates. Then technological innovation comes in, driven by the same market, and asks: What is it that the scientists are doing? And the journalists? We can make that incomparably faster and cheaper for them! The result is, of course, that information becomes a commodity, and we all end up competing over how much of that of that thing we can produce even more, cheaper and faster, and still make a living! But OK, that's just a small example.
So what we are converging toward is a rule of thumb. "Innovation must be systemic!" We must innovate with the view toward improving "the systems in which we live and work". We are not accustomed to having this sort of 'rule of thumb'. Yet we may now begin to see that anything can be improved, and even radically improved, when it becomes informed – even our work with information, and even our creative work and work in general!
In Federation through Images we saw that the goal of knowledge federation is an evolving hierarchy of insights, principles, rules of thumb... that can inform and guide our handling of basic things in life. We federate basic knowledge, basic insights. What we've just seen is an example. But already this single example shows how this systemic creation and use of knowledge can be a scaffolding for a whole new phase in our evolution – and the beginning of it.
Engelbart and the invisible elephant
So what is Engelbart's key insight? What is his core contribution to the emerging paradigm? There are several. But here's perhaps the most spectacular or breath-taking one. Yes, it's the one that gives the "nervous system" to the elephant, so that this huge and mighty animal may not go rampant and destroy everything around...
Imagine yourself walking toward a wall.
You may be thinking your own thoughts. Listening to music. Looking around. But then something happened: And suddenly you see yourself standing still, a wall is in front of you. As your conscious mind is becoming aware of the situation, you realize that your muscles have already reacted to it!
So Doug's insight, in 1951!!!, was that the digital technology, connected in a network, provides this capability – we can think together just as the cells do in an organism!
The printing press could not do that
The printing press is a suitable metaphor here – many authors saw it as one of the key contributing factors for the Enlightenment. Suddenly knowledge became widely available, and reproducible! But still the printing press could only mass-produce and BROADCAST data.
Engelbart was not a technology inventor
In the reality 'on the other side of the mirror', where we federate basic and most useful insights as guiding principles for directing our daily lives and our evolution, there can hardly be a more basic and more useful guiding principle than a one by which the use of our creative capabilities is directed. It is therefore worth emphasizing that Engelbart (while being perceived as a technology inventor, and hence never really receiving any serious academic credit or attention or support for his work and ideas) contributed not only the principle of systemic innovation, but also a suitable methodology – and published it six years before Erich Jantsch and others met in Bellagio to create their own version of such a methodology.
Engelbart's methodology, which he called "augmentation", governed also his own work throughout his long career. It is therefore best to understand his real contributions by explaining them in the context of his very approach to innovation.
Augmenting human capabilities
So here's the "new thinking".
Engelbart's technical contributions
The meaning and the value of everything that Engelbart created, or dreamed of, must be understood in the context just presented.
Even the technical pieces that he received the credit for, the interactive user interface, collaboration on a distance... Doug experimented with linking people together in a seamless way. With a mouse in the right hand and the chorded keyset in the left, and the eyes fixed on the screen – one does not even need to move his hands to do most of the instant processing...
Similarly the Open Hyperdocument System, which was the design philosophy underlying the NLS system that was demonstrated in 1968. People thinking together will not necessarily create... old-fashioned books and articles! Why not let the new hypermedia documents freely evolve, or even better, be loose conglomerations of a variety of media pieces, assembled together according to need... But the Word and the Powerpoint and the email and the Photoshop... – they are all just reproducing the processing of the pre-Web kind of documents. Each in its own document format, not interoperable... Can't create new workflows!
And then there are higher-level constructs, quite a few of them. Let's just mention a couple: the Networked Improvement Community (NIC) is a basic new socio-technical system for a (generic) discipline – the B-level improvement activity... But there's another, C level – improving the improvers, organized as a NIC of NICs. But that's exactly what we are calling the transdiscipline; and that's quite precisely what the cybernetics, and the systems sciences, are about.
It is most interesting in the larger context we are exploring to see that Engelbart developed an original methodology for systemic innovation – already in 1962, i.e. six years before the systems scientists did that in Bellagio! The methodology is based on "augmentation system"... (explain?)
The future of innovation
So we may see Engelbart's key insight as this "P" in the above slide: Something was possible with the new technology that was not possible before!
But what is "N"? What is still needed, so that we may become "collectively intelligent"?
The answer is "systemic innovation"...
Engelbart also saw an original solution to the Wiener's paradox. He called it bootstrapping. The point is to not (only) tell the world how the systems should be, but engage in re-creating systems hands-on. Typically, but not exclusively, this is achieved when the developers of the system use themselves as the initial human part of the system. This idea was the core of Doug's all action in the last two decades of his career. When in the late 1980s he and his daughter Christina created an institute to share his gift to the world, the institute was first called "Bootstrap Institute", and it was later renamed "Bootstrap Alliance". The idea is clear – to bootstrap, the key will be to create alliances with businesses and universities and other institutions, and bootstrapping the systemic change together with them.
The future has already begun
Be the systems you want to see in the world
Fortunately, our story has a happy ending. (...)
Less than two weeks after Douglas Engelbart passed away – on July 2, 2013 – his dream was coming true in an academic community. AND the place could not be more potentially impactful than it was! As the President of the ISSS, on the yearly conference of this largest organization of systems scientists, which was taking place in Haiphong, Vietnam, Alexander Laszlo initiated a self-organization toward collective intelligence.
He really had two pivotal ideas. One was to make the community intelligent. The other one was to make an intelligent system for coordinating change initiatives around the globe. (An extension of.... TBA).
Alexander was practically born into systemic innovation. Didn’t his father Ervin, himself a creative leader in the systems community, point out that our choice was “evolution or extinction” in the very title of one of his books? And so evolution naturally became Alexander’s choice (we are here talking, of course, about the evolution of our knowledge-work and other systems, so that they may give a suitable orientation to the technological and cultural and social-systemic and other important aspects of our evolution). Alexander’s PhD advisor, Hasan Özbekhan, wrote the first 150-page systemic innovation theory (as part of a project initiated by Jantsch), at the point (in 1968), when systemic innovation was recognized (by the creative elite) as a necessary step toward the resolution of the global issues (which the same elite already then recognized as urgent). Later Alexander worked closely in the circle of Bela Banathy, who for a period of a couple of decades held the torch of the systemic innovation–related developments in the systems community.
Last not least, as a prominent member of the systems community, as the leader of the International Society for the Systems Sciences Advisory Board and of the Bertalanffy Center in Vienna, Alexander is well positioned to federate the state-of-the-art of the systems sciences into these initiatives.
We are here to build a bridge
We came to Haiphong with the story about Jantsch and Engelbart; and with the proposal "We are here to build a bridge"...
And indeed – the bridge has been built! The two initiatives have federated their activities most beautifully!
Prototypes include LaSI SIG & PHD program, the SIL... And The Lighthouse project, among others.
The meaning of The Lighthouse (although it belongs really to prototypes, and to Applications): It breaks the spell of the Wiener's paradox. It creates a lighthouse, for the systems community, to attract stray ships to their harbor. It employs strategic - political thinking, systemic self-organization in a research community, and contemporary communication design, to create impactful messages about a single issue, and placing them into the orbit: CAN WE TRUST "THE MARKET"? or do we need systemic understanding and innovation and design?
Evangelizing systemic innovation.
The emerging societal paradigm is often seen as a result of some specific change, for example to "the spiritual outlook on life", or to "systemic thinking". A down-on-earth, life-changing insight can, however, more easily be reached by observing the stupendous inadequacy of our various institutions and other systems, and understanding it as a consequence of our present values and way of looking at the world. The "evangelizing prototypes" are real-life histories and sometimes fictional stories, whose purpose is to bring this large insight or gestalt across. They point to uncommonly large possibilities for improving our condition by improving the systems. A good place to begin may be the blog post Ode to Self-Organization – Part One, which is a finctional story about how we got sustainable. What started the process was a scientist observing that even though we have all those incredible time-saving and labor-saving gadgets – we seem to be more busy than the people ever were! What happened with all that time we saved? (What do you think...?) Toward a Scientific Understanding and Treatment of Problems is an argument for the systemic approach that uses the metaphor of scientific medicine (which cures the unpleasant symptoms by relying on its understanding of the underlying anatomy and physiology) to point to an analogous approach to our societal ills. The Systemic Innovation Positively recording of a half-hour lecture points to some larger-than-life benefits that may result. The already mentioned introductory part (and Vision Quest) of The Game-Changing Game is a different summary of those benefits. The blog post Information Age Coming of Age is the history of the creation and presentation (at the Bay Area Future Salon) of The Game-Changing Game, which involves Doug Engelbart, Bill and Roberta English and some other key people from the Engelbart's intimate community.
Evangelizing knowledge federation.
The wastefulness and mis-evolution of our financial system is of course notorious. Yet perhaps even more spectacular examples of mis-evolution, and far more readily accessible possibilities for contribution through improvement, may be found in our own system – knowledge-work in general, and academic research, communication and education in particular. (One might say that the bankers are doing a good job making money for the people who have money...) That is what these evangelizing prototypes for knowledge federation are intended to show. On several occasions we began by asking the audience to imagine meeting a fairy and being approached by (the academic variant of) the usual question "Make a wish – for the largest contribution to human knowledge you may be able to imagine!" What would you wish for? We then asked the audience to think about the global knowledge work as a mechanism or algorithm; and to imagine what sort of contribution to knowledge a significant improvement to this algorithm would be. We then re-told the story about the post-war sociology, as told by Pierre Bourdieu, to show that even enormously large, orders-of-magnitude improvements are possible! Hear the beginning of our 2009 evangelizing talk at the Trinity College, Dublin, or read (a milder version) at the beginning of this article.
Knowledge Work Has a Flat Tire is a springboard story we told was the beginning of one of our two 2011 Knowledge Federation introductory talks to Stanford University, Silicon Valley and the world of innovation (see the blog post Knowledge Federation – an Enabler of Systemic Innovation, and the article linked therein). Eight Vignettes to Evangelize a Paradigm is a collection of such stories.
Paradigm Strategy poster
When the above stories are heard and digested, not only the story of Engelbart must seem incredible, but really the entire big thing: How can it be possible that we the people have ignored insights whose importance literally cannot be overstated? Why don't we innovate on the level of our basic institutions or systems – just as we innovate in technology? Why is there this surreal gap between our cleverness in the small (think of your smart phone) and our lack of attention to the infinitely larger and incomparably more imortant (our knowledge work at large)? What is really going on? Perhaps there is something we need to understand about ourselves, something very basic, that we haven't seen before? It turns out – and isn't this what the large paradigm changes really are about – that the heart of the matter will be in an entirely different perception of the human condition, with entirely new issues... Here is where the real story begins – and it involves weaving together the research and the giants in the humanities. That is what The Paradigm Strategy poster aims to model, as one of our prototypes. Here is where the vignette are woven together into all those higher-level constructs: threads, patterns, and ultimately to a gestalt, showing what is to be done. The giants here represent sociology, linguistics, cognitive science, philosophy... They include Bauman, Bourdieu, Chomsky, Damasio, Nietzsche... We'll say more about the substance of this conversation piece in Federation through Conversations. For now you may just explore The Paradigm Strategy poster on your own.
Systemic Innovation book
"Systemic Innovation" is the title of the book manuscript in the making, which is intended to be the second book in Knowledge Federation Trilogy (a small book series with which we intend to break the news about knowledge federation to the general public – and initiate the corresponding dialog). The tentative subtitle of this book is "Democracy for the Third Millennium".
A note about the subtitle: In the present and so stubbornly persisting order of things or paradigm, "democracy" is the institutions and processes that we associate with this word ("free elections", "free press"...). It is commonly assumed that when all this is in place, then so is democracy – and we the people are in control. The nightmare scenario in this order of things is a dictatorship – where a dictator has taken from the people all those affordances of control and tokens of freedom. But there's a worse scenario – and that's what Engelbart's second slide at Google was pointing to – where nobody has control, simply because the system or systems in which we ride into the future do not afford the possibility of control by design. The dictator may come to his senses; his more reasonable son may succeed him. But if our ride into the future is such that nobody can control it – then we really have a problem!
The book narrative weaves together the histories of Doug Engelbart and Erich Jantsch, as two visionary thinkers who lived and worked in close vicinity to each other, near the two ends of the Golden Gate bridge spanning the San Francisco Bay. Each of them needed the other one to complete his dream (give us the people the vision and control we need to steer safely into the future); and yet they never met or collaborated – and it is uncertain whether at all they knew about each other. This story is of course a metaphor for the two lines of activity that those two unordinary men represent as interests and as icons – technological innovation / knowledge media / knowledge federation (Engelbart), and systems science / contemporary issues / systemic innovation (Jantsch). And for the need to combine those two lines of activity.
While this book is being written, let's just share here another story and thread – which will both touch upon a theme from Engelbart's 2007 presentation at Google which we've so far ignored ("the breaking controls" on his second slide), and give a hint that may explain the subtitle.
So imagine a bright young man, Jørgen Randers by name, traveling from Oslo to Boston, in 1969, to do a doctorate in physics at the MIT. And who – having heard a talk by Jay Forrester (systems scientist and founding father of "system dynamics") decided (just as Jantsch did a bit earlier in time and a bit later in his career) that it would not be physics but systems sciences that his career would be devoted to.
Jørgen ended up being one of the four authors, all just as young as he was, of what is still most sold and most talked about book on the environmental issues – The Club of Rome report "The Limits to Growth". So imagine now that this bright young man reached the conclusion that our civilization would eventually come to a bitter end – unless...
What followed was a series of nonsensical public debates, which marked Jørgen's life.Much later he would bring his experiences to the conclusion that "The need is for ..." – see him say that in the trailer of The Last Call documentary (the entire six-minute trailer is of course well worth you time and attention). All that really needed to be said – and that is difficult to argue with even without the simulation study – is that our civilization needs 'brakes' – see
- The article Bootstrapping Social-Systemic Evolution, by which Knowledge Federation introduced itself to the systems community at the above-mentioned ISSS57 conference in Haiphong.
- The recording of a lecture where this is told as a springboard story in Democracy 2.0 lecture series at Buenos Aires Institute of Technology
The book then sets the stage for a short survey of the contemporary developments, including the development of knowledge federation, as we briefly pointed out above.
- The Incredible History of Doug continues. We proposed to some of the leaders at Google and at Stanford University, who knew us from before, to take advantage of this year's 50th anniversary of Engelbart's "Mother of All Demos" and correct the historical errors by (1) explaining his vision and contributions, and giving him proper credit; (2) extending that line of action into institutionalizing his work and vision – and thereby "completing Engelbart's unfinished revolution" see this Google document.