Holotopia: Collective mind

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H O L O T O P I A:    F I V E    I N S I G H T S

The printing press revolutionized communication, and enabled the Enlightenment. But the Internet and the interactive digital media constitute a similar revolution. Hasn't the change we are proposing, from 'the candle' to 'the lightbulb', already been completed?

We look at the socio-technical system by which information is produced and handled in our society, which the new information technology helped us create. We zoom in on its structure, and principle of operation. We see that this principle of operation has remained broadcasting—which suits the printing press, but not the new technology. We see, in other words, that we have used the new technology to only 'recreate the candle'.

Our collective mind needs structural change

What will it take to become "informed"

Imagine a world where correct understanding of one's situation is used as basis for action.

In knowledge federation we use the keyword gestalt for such understanding, and consider having an "appropriate gestalt" or a gestalt that is appropriate to a situation as a model for what we intuitively mean when we use the word "informed". "Our house is on fire" is a canonical example. An appropriate gestalt points to a course of action that is appropriate to one's situation.

Suppose, now, that we apply this idea to our handling of information and knowledge. What gestalt would result? What course of action would it point to?

Knowledge work has a flat tire

At the point where we were "going public" with our knowledge federation initiative, by presenting it to The Silicon Valley and to a community of international knowledge-work innovators at our 2011 Stanford University workshop, within the Triple Helix IX conference, we used the flat tire metaphor to propose the gestalt that characterizes our knowledge work-related situation; and to point to a course of action that is needed to handle it correctly.

Knowledge Work Has a Flat Tire is a thread consisting of two brief vignettes, where two leading scientists contradicted one other while presenting to the public the scientific view of an urgent policy issue, the climate change.

Our point was that the public had no basis for deciding which of them was right. That the net result of this way of combining academic research and media informing is confusion and inaction. And that our overall situation in knowledge work is now similar to the situation of passengers in a car that has a flat tire. Pressing the gas pedal and surging forward (publishing, or broadcasting) is no longer effective. Our situation demands that we stop and take care of a structural problem in our handling of information, and our creation of knowledge.

Democracy needs structural change

Cybernetics of democracy

We are preparing a book series, to help us launch holotopia. "Cybernetics of Democracy" is the working title of the second book in the series.

Notice that we handle democracy in the same way in which we handle our other institutions or systems—we inherit a certain collection of instruments and processes from the past (voting procedures, representative bodies, a constitution...) , and we reify them and call them "democracy". But "democracy" means the rule of the people. Is our "democracy" still, in a meaningful sense, giving the instruments of power to the people, so that they may 'steer' it and choose their destiny? Could "democracy" too be corrupted by the power structure, without us noticing?

We are about to share a series of stories, and insights, which will help us see and handle these centrally important questions in a completely new way. But before we begin, a brief note about this title.

"Cybernetics" is literally "the science of governance", and of governability. As an academic field, cybernetics is conceived above all as a study of the structure that a system needs to have to be governable, or viable. Cybernetics has taught us to see systems in terms of "communication and control", or "feedback and control". If anyone should be able to control a system, the system needs to have a way to perceive and correct its behavior. Or metaphorically, it needs suitable 'headlights' and 'steering'.

The basic insight shared in the book is that while literally everything has changed, our "democracy" has remained as it was conceived in Athens twenty five centuries ago, and adopted with slight modifications two hundred years ago by our first modern "democracy". We do not have suitable "communication and control".

But the details—how this problem was discovered, and what is being done to correct it—are far more interesting. We here share a very brief outline.

Democracy needs breaks

The book begins with the story of Jørgen Randers, who in 1969, having just graduated from college, travels from Oslo to Boston to do a doctorate in physics at MIT. But having heard a lecture by Jay Forrester, Jørgen decides that it would not be physics, but systems science, or system dynamics.

In 1972, Randers became one of the authors of The Club of Rome's first and still most widely read report, "The Limits to Growth". At that point his life, and the lives of his co-authors (whose average age was 25), became an exhausting strife against the power structure, which manifested itself as a series of completely nonsensical debates. All that really needed to be said is that the growth of human systems, on a finite planet, cannot continue indefinitely. And that for us to be able to govern our future instead of 'hitting the wall' and ending tragically—our "democracy" required 'brakes', which it is currently lacking.</p>

At the 40th anniversary of The Limits to Growth, a one-day conference was organized in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. Hear Jørgen summarize his forty-years experience, by saing:

"The horrible fact is that democracy, and capitalism, will not solve those problems. We do need a fundamental paradigm shift in the area of governance."

Wiener's paradox