Humanity’s Drive to Get Sh*t Done

Part 2 of a simple framework to explain blockchain, crypto, deep data, AI, ML and IoT in the context of humanity’s evolution

“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” — Charles Darwin. Image courtesy Les Anderson.

This is the second part of a series exploring how emerging technologies support the evolution of humanity. In Part 1, we explored the evolution of societies in four core areas:

  1. How energy is converted into something of service (plough, automobile, airplane, space shuttle, solar panel);
  2. How communication takes place and how ideas spread (smoke signal, newspaper, telegraph, television, fax machine, mobile phone, Internet, Twitter);
  3. How history is recorded (papyrus scroll, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Wikipedia, Internet Archive); and,
  4. How the exchange of value is recorded (bartering, coin, central bank, cryptocurrency, Single, Double and Triple Entry Accounting).

We saw how crypto and blockchain are currently impacting all four core areas — a rare occurrence.

In this Part 2, we’re going to explore the evolution of organisational structures and how societies have managed to get things done in the past.

Consider some of the greatest feats of humanity: putting a man on the moon, the Large Hadron Collider, the International Space Station, the United Nations, the Periodic Table of Elements, mapping the Human Genome, Europe’s network of cathedrals, Quantum Physics, Democracy, the Great Wall of China, language, the pyramids. Each achievement required different forms of collaboration. Putting a man on the moon required cross-disciplinary teams from two nation states who competed with each other to be the first to set foot on the moon; the International Space Station and the Large Hadron Collider required intergovernmental treaties, agreements and cooperation between nation states; the pyramids and the Great Wall required tribes to come together; Europe’s cathedrals were the result of a belief system that spanned national borders; the Periodic Table required collaboration spanning three centuries.

Let’s look at how the organisational forms that made these feats possible have evolved over time.

David F. Ronfeldt, a Senior Social Scientist in the International Policy Department at RAND Corporation, has spent the past 25 years developing a theoretical framework about social evolution, based on how people and their societies collaborate and organise. He has discovered that only four forms of organisation lie behind the governance and evolution of all societies across the ages:

  • The tribal form was the first to emerge and mature (Society 1.0), beginning thousands of years ago. Its main dynamic is kinship, which gives people a distinct sense of identity and belonging—the basic elements of culture, as manifested still today in matters ranging from nationalism to fan clubs. Recent examples include Afghan tribes, Somali clans and L.A. city gangs.
  • The institutional form was the second to emerge (Society 2.0). Emphasising hierarchy, it led to the development of the state and the military, as epitomised initially by the Roman Empire, the Catholic papacy and then the absolutist states of the 16th century. Recent examples include the Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba.
  • The market form — Society 3.0 — enables people to excel at openly competitive, free, and fair economic exchanges. Although present in ancient times, it did not gain sway until the 19th century, at first mainly in England on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, when the writings of Scotland's Adam Smith and the French Physiocrats explain that a market economy will function as a self-regulating system if left alone by the state. Then we see a transition in Europe from mercantilism, where the state dominates the market, to capitalism, where market actors may try to dominate state actors—and in the process, mercantilism is outperformed. We also see a separation of the state and market realms, and of the public and the private sectors. Recent examples include Chile, China, Mexico and Russia.
  • The network form — Society 4.0 — serves to connect dispersed groups and individuals so that they may coordinate and act conjointly. The Internet and the dot com boom of the late 1990’s laid the foundations for this kind of coordination. However, as we will see, emerging technologies are allowing a new kind of collaboration beyond what the Internet enabled.

Each of the four forms of organisation embodies a distinctive set of structures, beliefs, and dynamics (with positive and negative sides) about how a society should be organised — about who gets to achieve what, why, and how. Each involves different standards about how people should treat each other. Each enables people to do something — to address some social problem — better than they could by using another form. Each energises different kinds of actors and adherents. Each has different ideational and material bases.

The progression from one form to the next occurs mainly because each form enables people to address a core problem that a society faces as it develops. In brief, the tribal form excelled at addressing the early problem of social identity and belonging; the hierarchical institutional form addressed the problem of power and administration; and the market form addressed the problem of complex exchanges and globalisation.

Despite all its strengths and contributions to the advance of society, however, the market system has a key limitation of its own: the market system contributes to creating social inequality. As in the case of earlier forms, the recognition of this limitation leads us — almost inevitably — to a new form of organisation: Society 4.0.

Here’s Ronfeldt’s 20-minute summary of his simplicity-in-complexity framework he calls TIMN — Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks. It’s well worth a watch:

In Ronfeldt’s four papers dedicated to TIMN (1993, 1996, 2002 and 2007), he makes the case that the network form of societal organisation has mainly benefitted civil society, which he describes as nongovernment organisations (NGOs), nonprofit organisations (NPOs), private voluntary organisations (PVOs), grassroots organisations (GROs) and networks of environmental, human-rights, and other activist groups. Let’s collectively refer to these initiatives as “world-positive,” since they all address — essentially — the UN’s 17 SDGs, which many refer to as the umbrella framework of all the positive work required in the world to address social and environmental issues.

At the end of all his papers, Ronfeldt poses some version of the following question:

“A big question is: What actors will the new realm consist of? Where might there be additional actors outside NGOs? Since a new realm absorbs some actors from existing realms, could a new network realm take non-profit health, education, welfare, and media actors away from their current associations with the state and market realms?” — David F. Ronfeldt

At the end of the video above, he poses the question about the significant world-positive activities already underway:

“How are all these activities going to get aggregated? Where will the aggregations occur? What kinds of organisations will be the clearing houses? Who’s going to pay for it?” — David F. Ronfeldt

Essentially, Ronfeldt is asking what the next evolution of organisation might look like. He has chosen the word network to name it, but that phrase feels fairly limiting — in the context of humanity’s evolution — since we have been building networks for millennia. Networks, as we have come to understand them — roads, railways, shipping routes, airline routes, phones, computers, Internet, satellites, social platforms—have merely served to expand the previous form of organisation: markets. Humanity has not (yet) seen a higher, more efficient form of organisation than markets.

Is a higher form of organisation than markets even possible?

Transcending Markets, Movements & Networks

Just for a minute imagine an entirely new form of social organisation, one which doesn’t yet exist. The imaginary organisation might consist of members of what environmentalist Paul Hawken calls:

“…the largest movement on earth, a movement that has no name, leader, or location, and that has gone largely ignored by politicians and the media. Like nature itself, it is organising from the bottom up, in every city, town, and culture and is emerging to be an extraordinary and creative expression of people’s needs worldwide.”

He is referring, of course, to the immensely impactful world-positive movement, which he calls Blessed Unrest: a movement spanning billion-dollar nonprofits to single-person dot.causes.

Imagine this global movement operating as effectively as a beehive or an ant colony. Imagine communication flows as clear and rapid as that witnessed between trees in a forest. What if highly complex, emergent systems could arise AND all this work could be done without anyone controlling or directing these activities? Could systems coordinate efficient activities between agents operating at grassroots — the way slime mould works — rather than being directed from top-down? (Mitchel Resnick, Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab, describes this kind of Agent Based Modelling in his delightful book Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams.) Imagine if this entire movement formed a meshwork, in which the required work could be done significantly more efficiently than the work done in the most efficient market. Imagine coalescing the combined energy and transcending individual resistance movements like #Occupy and #MeToo and #NeverAgain and #BlackLivesMatter and #DACA — to the point where we actually get sh*t done.

What is Meshworking?

Meshworking is a method of collaboration that models how the human brain works. It’s not something as mechanical or predictable as project planning or the economy, because meshworking acts as a living system does. To understand how meshworking works, consider the way slime mould finds its way to food in this 2-minute video:

NOVA PBS Official, 2012

In case you missed the video, here’s the spoiler: without a brain or a nervous system, slime mould has been able to accurately replicate the rail system of Tokyo and the major road systems of England, Canada, Spain and Portugal. In other words, a single cell solved real world problems that took teams of highly qualified and intelligent engineers many decades to figure out. What this slime mould seems to teach us is that nature’s creativity and genius lies not in the genius of the individual, but rather in the genius of the collective, combined with the feedback loops of the collective. (And if you don’t believe that a single, gelatinous amoeba made up of thousands of nuclei, all floating together in cytoplasm can actually teach us something, you may be surprised to learn that Hampshire College has a slime mould as part of it’s faculty. The slime mould researches important problems from a non-human perspective, and enhances intellectual life on campus by helping students and colleagues to think about the world without human biases. Fancy that.)

The question is, “Can humanity evolve to this level of organisation?” To date, no technology has existed to support this level of creativity. Perhaps we’re getting there, though.

Elisabet Sahtouris, in her fascinating 2011 TEDx talk, Celebrating Crisis, explains the paradoxical evolutionary cycle from competition to collaboration and how nature shows us again and again that it’s cheaper to feed enemies than to kill them. She talks about humanity evolving to a global family. Could that be the next form of organisation we evolve into, beyond networks?

Gail Taylor, co-founder of MG Taylor — the organisation which described Rules for Flocking Behaviour in 1997 — and founder of TomorrowMakers, refers to this kind of creativity and collaboration as Group Genius, which she describes as follows:

“Group Genius defies definition. It emerges at that magical moment in time within a semi-structured group activity when all participants experience simultaneous synapse transmissions and realise the same thing at the same time. The moment opens new possibilities and births different ways of seeing things, and there’s no going back.”

Marilyn Hamilton, founder of Integral City, says the following in The Art and Science of Meshworking:

“The brain builds itself by laying down large synaptic highways, which become the scaffold of communication corridors from which secondary and tertiary corridors emerge, until a vast “hairnet of axons” covers the brain. Once this hairnet is in place then we have a brain that is able to self-organise an infinite number of connections, thoughts, ideas, innovations and learnings while at the same time behave and direct behaviour in dependable, learned ways.”

Imagine what might be possible if the Blessed Unrest movement could coordinate as efficiently as the slime mould meshworking, with a hairnet of axons, where every person involved knows exactly what has to happen next, in the most efficient manner possible, because of rich feedback loops designed into their systems. Imagine these members being handsomely rewarded for their efforts, using an entirely new reward mechanism, outside of the markets. Imagine this new form of Group Genius — in time — becoming more influential than existing Networks, Markets, Institutions or Tribes, while respecting the important role each plays in a mature society.

Emerging Technologies & Meshworks

Interestingly, developments occurring in artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain and crypto essentially allow meshworking to occur. A small sample of examples will help bring this to light.

Arthur Brock, Eric Harris-Braun, Matthew Schutte and their teams at Holo and Metacurrency Project are developing tools for collaboration at scale — by moving away from data-centric models towards what they call an agent-centric model. They’re also developing complementary currencies to reward collaborators in a mutual​ ​credit​ ​accounting​ ​system​, rather than in a market. They’re daring to ask the question “Could​ ​Holo’s​ ​currency​ ​engine​ ​be​ ​replicated​ ​for​ ​a​ ​new​ ​breed​ ​of​ ​cryptocurrency​ ​backed​ ​by distributed​ ​networks​ ​of​ ​providers​ ​of​ ​energy,​ ​food,​ ​housing,​ ​transportation,​ ​etc?” What if those distributed networks which back the currency are the users of the currency themselves? In other words, could the value of human life become the backing of a new form of value exchange?

Matan Field, Adam Levi and the team at DAOstack recognise that tribes, institutions, markets and networks no longer have the capacity to handle the complexity of the challenges we are facing. They believe it’s time to invent an entirely new toolkit for how human beings coordinate their sense-making, their choice-making and their actions into a collective intelligence.

Vlad Zamfir, Greg Meredith and the team at Rchain want to find new ways of coordinating human activity. They do this by focussing on concurrency (the way nature does things) instead of serialisation (the way computers do things).

Sean Gourley and the team at Primer are using the world’s vast collections of data — collected in decentralised ways, from people reporting information on the ground — to tell more meaningful stories about understanding our human dynamics. Imagine how much progress could be made when we turn data into stories and then bring those stories into an environment designed to birth Group Genius. Nora Bateson has taken data collection one step further and defined what she calls warm data, information about the relationships between things, rather than information about the things themselves. Imagine this new form of data becoming the essence of underlying feedback loops required for meshworking.

There are many, many others doing creative work to — sometimes unknowingly — evolve our next form of human collaboration and organisation. Jordan Greenhall calls these significant strides an experiment in self-organising collective intelligence.

The challenge of our time is not to address the multitude of social and ecological challenges we see, but to evolve our methods of organisation and coordination. It’s time to transcend capitalism and the broken form of ‘democracy’ we’re forced to endure. Let’s get to work.