This essay is was conceived as a companion piece to Richard D. Bartlett’s bold invitation to Microsolidarity. Though I’m heading towards forty years older than Richard, I’m also his younger brother — a shared joke that contains more than a hint of truth.
Sometimes we have an encounter — with a person, a story, an event — that brings our own experience into sharp focus, and sets us alight with a sudden crackle and zing. Something falls into place: the view immediately becomes wider and clearer, and gives us a new sense of purpose. I can count only a small number of these moments in my life—two of them in recent months. One I’m still processing: The Hanzi Freinacht book The Listening Society. But the second has rattled straight into my consciousness and has stuck there: it’s Richard’s Microsolidarity.
Richard and I have been friends and fellow-explorers at Enspiral for more than six years. Our explorations have become steadily more entangled. About six months ago, we both fastened on the thing that seems most responsible for blocking political and institutional reinvention — our Enlightenment heritage and the stifling theocracy of individualism. Individualism has us stuck inside ourselves — and this can be a terrible place to be stuck in!
Now Richard has picked up the counter-theme to individualism— the notion of belonging — and has set out a fractal view of it that offers a pattern for organising. And this pattern fits my own efforts around building more skilful practices of relationality in all of our doings:
The image reframes the understandings of organisation that I inherited from my corporate and institutional experience. For a start, organising in the workplace is always oriented towards the work, or the task, and not towards relationship—let alone something as woo-woo as ‘belonging’. And yet — and Maslow missed this—belonging is the foundational human urge, from which all the attributes of wellbeing ultimately flow. Survival comes from belonging, not the other way around. So Richard’s notion, and its underlying orientation, forms the backdrop to this essay.
What I’m aiming to do here is to fill out and thicken up the relational part of the story — to describe the nuanced and detailed work of organising that lies within each element of this image, to shape them into a linked set of practices, and then to set out a proposed programme of learning and an invitation to participate that parallels the Microsolidarity proposition.
I am calling this detailed work Microattunement. This is the development programme unfolding at Human Methods Lab — and now at a website called Between Us — that we call Entangled Bodies. And to those friends of mine who share the view that our global systems are broken but who demand a totalising solution from me, my answer is — it’s this. The solution to our ills is to pay enough attention to each other that we can recognise ourselves in our differences — so that we can use each other’s talents to do what needs to be done. To surrender the fantasy of self-determination to something much more practical — readying ourselves to do together what we can’t possibly do apart. As separated individuals, we’re at the mercy of one-eyed tyrannies. As coordinated selves, we can remake our circumstances, first locally and then at increasing scale, together.
What’s emerging is a radical learning programme. And it’s a programme that presently lives beyond all of our current educational institutions, though it may be incorporated at some stage. And it’s fundamentally an inter-generational initiative — so it’s learning for our children and ourselves together. More on that later.
There’s a lot to cover in this essay, so I’m dividing it into sections.
Part 1: Why the Time is Now, is a reminder of the urgency of the task, forming a brief introduction to what follows.
Part 2: Sites of Learning — the Self, sets out the opportunities that are available from a radically relational perspective for coming to terms with and using the myriad capacities of our selves as entangled and contingent human bodies. This lays the groundwork for the next chapter:
Part 3: Sites of Learning — the Dyad. Here I explore the kinds of learning that is possible within the intimacy and safety zone of relationship with one other person. This in turn is preparation for the following chapter:
Part 4: Sites of Learning — the Small Group. Following Richard’s fractal pattern I consider a repertoire of detailed relational practices that are available and required at the pivotal level of the Crew, a team of around 4 to 7 people. Skill-building at this level lays a foundation for work at larger scales:
Part 5: Sites of Learning — Larger Gatherings. This part of the essay addresses the work of convening and conducting purposeful gatherings of large numbers of people, including the levels that Richard calls the Congregation and the Crowd. Finally we return to:
Part 6: An Architecture of Learning for the Next Human Era. In this last chapter I pull the threads from the previous chapters together to relate them to related practices from a range of domains, cultures and historical eras. The proposition is a teaching and learning sequence that builds new levels of synergy from our natural human differences, and can be refined and co-developed with people in other parts of the world. The intention is to build a movement to populate a landscape of transformative activities that have a shared orientation, but are attuned to a constellation of local circumstances.
Part 1: Why the Time is Now
Microsolidarity begins with the really uncomfortable story of now — the prospect of biological and social planetary collapse — for which Richard apologises as a downer. But in response to this existential dread, Microattunment has to double-down on his downer, for several reasons.
First, because Jem Bendell in his Deep Adaptation paper is advancing the timing of this collapse. And second, because my colleague Bernhard Resch has summed up in a single image what I think counts as a dreadful societal own goal — something that can smother us all even before we can start to respond to collapse. Here’s his image:
This reflects the conclusions of Shoshana Zuboff’s book Surveillance Capitalism. It draws attention to the rogue mutation of capitalism that’s now upon us: the unprecedented concentration of wealth and tech-enabled power and influence that is increasingly organised for mass behavioural modification — on the one hand by the unchecked global ambitions of Silicon Valley monopolists, and on the other by the equally unchecked power of the Chinese sovereign apparatus. Both deploy enormous volumes of hoovered-up data, claiming an unprecedented right of ownership to network-enabled personal human experience. These data are then analysed by hidden algorithms to categorise and evaluate us in order to direct our actions in a variety of ways.
Behind these instruments and the people who control them are both explicit and unconscious assumptions about how we should live our lives — libertarian ones in the case of Silicon Valley, and authoritarian ones in the case of China — that those of the subject populations do not necessarily share and have no chance to consider and discuss. The accelerating rise of tech and its ability to infiltrate, monetise, and influence every corner of our lives is now looking to redirect our humanity — the inchoate strivings of our many selves—towards an instrumentarian dystopia. This is a vortex that we must escape.
Thirdly, and at the same time — as Roger McNamee has pointed out — the evolution of social media has taken a profoundly sinister and perverted turn. The economics of their advertising underpinnings demand the presentation on screens of increasingly addictive clickbait, borrowing for example from the psychometrics of the slot machine industry. On the broadband internet, this means drilling for deeper and deeper layers of human suggestibility. Not long ago it was LOL cats that garnered eyeballs. Then it was pratfalls and wardrobe mishaps.
But increasingly the algorithms are focusing on even more flammable motivations for sharing, like anger and outrage. Internet content tuned to outrage reacts with similar instances to fuel a bonfire of Other-directed hatred that quickly consumes a disaffected and susceptible audience. Events like the tragedy in Christchurch — and the puny responses of Facebook and their ilk — show that the algorithms have escaped the asylum and have leapt far beyond the control of their creators.
Astonishingly, the perfect storm of everyman broadcast-quality production, ubiquitous social media and indefatigable recommendation engines — originally intended to connect, inform, educate and entertain us — has morphed into an intensifer and accelerator of our most aberrant and anti-social human impulses — lust, paranoia, victimhood, violence, hatred and homicide.
So it’s a race — one with with many strands. A race to recover our shared human capability — the sum of the unique, wondrous and ultimately unfathomable variations of being in every member of our species. A race where the power, the influence and the resources all seem to be locked up in oligopolies that are out of reach. A race that we ordinary humans have not yet started to run together. A race that we must join and win for the sake of a survivable and liveable future world.
Nonetheless—like Richard’s — mine is not a message of despair, but one of hope and optimism. By re-organising ourselves, and by mobilising our humanity and our differences, we can combine our energies and our talents, respond to the imminence of collapse, and beat the race to the bottom with its grim ethos of coercive separation. This is an invitation to the work to be done.
To introduce the work, I need to return to the conclusion that Richard, Bernhard and I all settled on just about nine months ago — the deadening effect on all of our efforts of the doctrine of individualism that has ruled Western thinking for the past 400 years. I first appreciated its significance 25 years ago when I commissioned a large-scale survey (n=1700) of a randomised sample of people’s lives, and discovered the pervasive sense of isolation and resignation that seemed to characterise the experience of so many people. Convinced that they had a moral duty to shape their own lives, and without a language to share the sense of guilt that their struggles often gave them, a large proportion of those we met felt that separation and stoic acceptance was the natural order of things.
Yet self-determination is not the experience of human history. We have always flourished as families and groups and tribes. Individualism is a recent invention: a “divide and conquer” dogma that cements the power of rulers of all kinds over the ruled. This is the recognition of the most insightful technology observers, like Douglas Rushkoff in his Team Human manifesto.
We have to take individualism seriously, because it engenders habits that are now deeply ingrained and that prevent us from learning and working effectively together. (In a podcast from earlier this year, Ronan Harrington described people in the workplace as being ‘clenched’: an apt description of a characteristic organisational behaviour of our times that stands on its dignity, evinces anxiety, wears a mask, and fears any loss of face as a weakness.) But without vulnerability and genuine connection, there can be no synergy of the multiplicity of capabilities and organisation — the unity of unmerged voices — that we now need to deploy in defence of our planet.
In this essay we’re going to explore how to defeat the forces of individualism and instrumentalism by learning the art of belonging. And we’ll use Richard’s pattern to frame the task.
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