Archive for November, 2014

Another Take on the Emerging Paradigm Shift

November 8, 2014

Over the course of human history, people have usually been able to rely on some stable source of authority and control in their lives, be it religion, the king or queen, or the social order itself. However benevolent or malevolent a regime might be, usually there have been clear lines along which blame or credit can be assigned.

So, even though the complexity and scale of success and failure in today’s world provide ample evidence that no one exerts centralized control over events, it is not surprising that many people today still find it comforting to think some individuals or groups must be manipulating others to their own ends. There is, however, an alternative point of view that may provide a more productive path toward effective action.

After all, efforts to date that have focused on the removal and replacement of any given group that appears to be in control have simply resulted in an alteration of the system, and not the institution of a fundamentally new system. Thus, socialist and communist governments have failed in large part because they were unable to manage resources as effectively as capitalist systems do (which is, of course, not all that well). That is, despite the appearance of having put in place a radically different system of priorities, the constraints of socioeconomics themselves did not change in the context of socialist and communist regimes.

The individual incumbents of social and economic positions have nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of the socioeconomic system’s likelihoods of success and failure, and if they had not accepted their roles in that system, others would have. Changing the system is much more difficult, both conceptually and practically, than merely assigning blame and replacing an individual or group with another individual or group. To the extent the system remains the same, changing the occupants within it makes little difference.

The idea is much the same as was realized in industry when it shifted from quality control’s “tail-chopping” methods to continuous quality improvement’s “curve-shifting” methods. In the former, a certain ratio of acceptable to malformed parts is dictated by the system’s materials and processes. Quality control simply removes the bad parts from the production line and does nothing to change the system. Since quality is often normally distributed, taking the statistical shape of a bell curve, it is accordingly inevitable that cutting off the bad end of that distribution (tail-chopping) only results in it being filled in again in the next production cycle.

Continuous quality improvement methods, in contrast, focus on changing the system and on reducing the likelihood of producing bad parts. Efforts of these kind move the entire quality distribution up the scale so that no parts fall in the previous distribution’s bad tail at all. Of course, the outcomes of our socioeconomic system’s processes are very different from the manufacturing of machine parts. The point of this simple illustration is only that there is remarkable value in thinking less about removing undesired individuals from a process and in thinking more about changing the process itself.

There is no denying that those who seem to be in control benefit disproportionately from others’ efforts. But even though they have had little or nothing to do with creating the system that confers these benefits on them, they certainly do have a vested interest in maintaining that system. This fact reveals another important aspect of any solution that will prove truly viable: the new system must provide benefits not available under the old one. The shift from old to new cannot be a matter of mere will power or organizational efficiency. It must come about as a result of the attractions offered by the new system, which motivate behavior changes universally with little or no persuasion. Qualitatively different classes of opportunities and rewards can come about only by integrating into the system features of the environment that were excluded from the previous system. The central problem of life today is how to provoke this kind of shift and its new integrations.

We can begin to frame this problem in its proper context when we situate it horizontally as an ecological problem and vertically as an evolutionary one. In the same way that ecological niches define the evolutionary opportunities available to species of plants and animals, historical and cultural factors set up varying circumstances to which human societies must adapt. Biological and social adaptations both become increasingly complex over time, systematically exhibiting characteristic patterns in the ways matter, energy, and information are functionally integrated.

The present form of contemporary global society has evolved largely in terms of the Western European principles of modern science, capitalism, and democracy. These principles hinge on the distinction between a concrete, solid, and objective world and an impressionistic, intuitive, and subjective mind. For instance, science and economics focus traditionally on measuring and managing material things and processes, like volts, meters, kilograms, barrels, degrees Celsius, liters, speed, flows, etc. Human, social, and environmental issues are treated statistically, not in terms of standardized metric units, and they are economically regarded as “externalities” excluded from profit and loss calculations.

So, if qualitatively different classes of opportunities and rewards can come about only by integrating into the system features of the environment that were excluded from the previous system, what can we do to integrate the subjective with the objective, and to also then incorporate standardized metric units for the externalities of human, social, and environmental capital into science and economics? The question demands recognition of a) a new system of ecological niches with their own unique configurations of horizontal relationships, and b) the evolution of new species capable of adapting to life in these niches.

The problem is compounded by the complexity of seeing the new system of niches as emerging from the existing system of ecological relationships. Economically speaking, today’s cost centers will be tomorrow’s profit drivers. Scientifically speaking, sources of new repeatable and stable phenomena will have to be identified in what are today assumed to be unrepeatable and unstable phenomena, and will then have to be embodied in instrumental ensembles.

The immediate assumption, which we will have to strive to overcome, is that any such possibilities for new economic and scientific opportunities could hardly be present in the world today and not be widely known and understood. A culturally ingrained presupposition we all share to some extent is that objective facts are immediately accessible and become universally adopted for their advantages as soon as they are recognized. Claims to the contrary can safely be ignored, even if, or perhaps especially if, they represent a truly original potential for system change.

This assumption is an instance of what behavioral economists like Simon and Kahnemann refer to as bounded rationality, which is the idea that language and culture prethink things for us in ways we are usually unaware of. Research has shown that many decisions in daily life are tinged with emotion, such that a certain kind of irrationality takes an irrefutable place in how we think. Examples include choices involving various combinations of favorable and unfavorable odds of profiting from some exchange. Small but sure profits are often ignored in favor of larger and less sure profits, or mistaken calculations are assumed correct, to the disadvantage of the decision maker. There is surely method in the madness, but the pure rationality of an ideal thought process can no longer be accommodated.

Given the phenomenon of bounded rationality, and the complexity of the metasystematic shift that’s needed, how is change to be effected? As Einstein put it, problems of a certain kind cannot be solved from within the same framework that gave rise to them. As long as we continue to think in terms of marshalling resources to apply to the solution of a problem we have failed in conceiving the proper magnitude and scope of the problem we face.

We must instead think in terms of problem-solution units that themselves embody a new evolutionary species functioning within a new system of ecological niches. And these species-niche combinations must be born fully functional and viable, like birds from lizard eggs, caught up in the flow and play of their matter, energy and information streams from the moment of their arrival.

A vitally important aspect of this evolutionary leap is that the new system emerge of its own accord, seemingly with a will of its own. But it will not take shape as a result of individuals or groups deliberately executing a comprehensive design. There will be no grand master architect, though the co-incidence of multiple coordinations and alignments will seem so well planned that many may assume one exists.

It may be, however, that a new spontaneously self-organizing culture might be grown from a few well-placed spores or seeds. The seeds themselves need to be viable in terms of their growth potential and the characteristics of the particular species involved. But equally important are the characteristics of the environment in which the seeds are planted. Bernstein (2004) describes four conditions necessary to the birth of plenty in the modern world:

  1. Property rights: those who might create new forms of value need to own the fruits of their labors.
  2. Scientific rationalism: innovation requires a particular set of conceptual tools and a moral environment in which change agents need not fear retribution.
  3. Capital markets: investors must be able to identify entrepreneurs and provide them with the funds they need to pursue their visions.
  4. Transportation/communications: new products and the information needed to produce and market them must have efficient channels in which to move.

If we take the new emerging culture as unmodern, nonmodern, or amodern, might a new paradigm of plenty similarly take shape as these four conditions are applied not just to manufactured capital, land, and labor, but to human capital (abilities, health, performance), social capital (trust, honesty, dependability, etc.), and natural capital (the environmental services of watersheds, fisheries, estuaries, forests, etc.)? Should not we own legal title to defined shares of each form of capital? Should not science be systematically employed in research on each form of capital? Should not investments in each form of capital be accountable? Should not each form of capital be mobile and fungible within established networks? Should not there be common languages serving as common currencies for the exchange of each form of capital? Instead of assuming the answers to these questions are uniformly “No,” should not we at least entertain them long enough to firmly establish why they cannot be “Yes”?