Monday, 4 June 2007

The Story So Far...

My blog postings so far have explored the origins and some of the dimensions of the paradigm change currently in progress. We began with the roots of the change in the dynamics of population demographics, and explored the nature of paradox and orthodoxy to better understand the ground within which the change is occuring. We then explored how the change affects us in our individual make-up and our immediate social relationships, with intimates, family and friends.

In the next series of postings, I want to shift the focus somewhat, to examine the socio-economic implications of this on a broader canvas. I want to address issues such as the huge inequities that persist between the rich and the poor of our planet, and how these come into the picture. What is the nature of the economy that must struggle to come into being in a world of near zero economic growth? How must business change?

What is government and how will it be affected, as a major institution? What new forms of government are emerging?

What about the shadow side of the picture? How might the recognition that we are multiple and inconsistent change how we deal with the shadow self and the shadow side of social relations? What possibilities exist for new social forms as a result?

Are there impacts on religion and spirituality of this change? How will these aspects of our humanity mutate? They have already undergone tremendous change in the 20th century, but they are due for much more in the 21st.

Another area I plan to address is the issue of human health. Our understanding of health and our relationships to our bodies will also likely change as a result of the paradigm change in progress. I shall be exploring some of these issues as well.

Finally, we shall need to bring these different strands together and examine our living patterns, how we build communities, and on what basis might they exist in the "post-sustainable world".

The main argument throughout this discussion is that, although the overall focus is within the context of sustainability, the underlying fabric of our societies is changing and hence the issue of sustainability must be understood within a new grounding, rather than on the old one.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

More on Identity

I spoke at a meeting organized by the students in the Museum Studies program (Muséologie) at Laval University this past Saturday, on the nature of identity and the change currently in progress. This allowed me to consolidate and further develop these ideas.

In an earlier post, I describe a shift in how we view identity in three areas - from a focus on history to a valorisation of the now, from a focus on identity as a centre to the idea of identity as peripheral, and from a single, coherent entity to a multiple incoherent entity.

One of the ways of highlighting the latter is the shift from the idea that one may have a single national identity to the idea that one may have passports from many different countries. I remember reading about a journalist (Wilfred Burdett) in the 1970s who carried 24 passports with him... although still an exceptional case today, the idea of having several passports is no longer as strange a concept as it once was.

Some people wonder if the difference between having one identity and one of having many isn't just "a question of semantics", of how one defines identity. Of course, this may certainly be true, but I believe there are differences that go deeper. Essentially, I believe that the self, the whole of who we are as individuals, encompasses many more states of being than we usually recognize or acknowledge, or even than we can know. Modern neurology tells us that the brain is modular, that it is organized into a large number of distinct units, each with a particular function, and that the whole behaviour of the brain is an emergent property of the interaction of all these different parts. What, then, is identity and how may we define and understand it? Is it the complete collection of all these elements as they manifest themselves in behavioural expression?

But we know that, from a certain perspective, the self is not only the brain and the body, but it is also our interaction with the environment. We do not simply act on the environment, the environment acts upon us through our interactions and changes us. Different environmental interactions allow different possible behaviours for the self to emerge, even to come into being. So to be complete, we would have to define a "full identity" as including all the behavioural components, beliefs, values, etc. stored and expressed in the brain, the body and the environment. But this definition makes the self very large indeed - it incorporates most of the universe!

If we agree to separate the self - as - identity from the environment, then we may already have several selves with different behavioural characteristics, depending upon the environment within which they function. These selves may be viewed as sequential, that is, as an evolution or transformation of the self over time. This is often how we find a way to reconcile the idea of multiple selves within an individual - that is, we allow for the possibility that the individual may evolve over time. But this is not so very different from accepting that one may have several functional identities "in parallel", that is, they function in different environments over the same time span. Hence the notion of multiple identities within a single "self" is commensurate with modern cognitive theory.

Once we accept the idea that we may have more than one identity, more than one set of characteristic behaviours, values, strategies, beliefs and representations of the world, then it becomes possible for these different sets to contradict each other - in values, in strategies, in beliefs or in the representations of the world that we use. Indeed, if we go back to the argument that the self is larger than any given identity, then inconsistency is necessary. We know inconsistency is part of what it is to be human, the effort to enforce a "consistent human image" has failed whenever it has been attempted. Humans rebel against consistency, sometimes murderously, violently.

There is another reason it is necessary to view humans as fundamentally inconsistent. Essentially, we embrace death within our beings, but death is by its very nature inconsistent with the rest. Part of our current culture is to deny the existence of death within us, to exorcise the idea of death from our beings, another way of enforcing orthodoxy. Such a program is doomed to failure. We all die, and sooner or later, we must confront this fact of our existence. The introduction of death and its awareness into the psyche, into the self, means that we must necessarily embrace a form of inconsistency. A healthy response to accepting our eventual death is therefore to accept that we are multiple, inconsistent, and larger than we can know.

As indicated above, the nature of our being is fundamentally fragmentary. The idea of integrity, of us being single, is an illusion. The cognitive system is very good at maintaining such illusions - it fools us into thinking we are single, that our vision is complete and has no holes, that our perception of time is continuous, that we are eternally alive, that our consciousness is most of us, and so on. These are all illusions.

This idea of the self as fragmentary and as multiple actually leads us into this other observation about how our perception of the self is changing - that we are not determined by our history but that we determine ourselves through our actions in the now. The problem with the history argument is that it requires a simple and single definition of the self - otherwise, who's history are we discussing? Also, for the self to change, no change is possible without action. We change ourselves through our actions. For this to be true, it cannot be the case that we are determined solely or even primarily by the history of our interactions with the world.

Hence every action we take constitutes an activation, a reinforcement, even a mutation of some characteristic of the different parts that make us up, some transformation of one or more of our identities. We take responsability for ourselves when we act. This moves us away from the socio-cognitive model of morality we have adopted for the past several decades, into a more embodied, direct form of morality. In the socio-cognitive model, our values and actions are determined by what we learn from our parents and our social and cultural environment at an early age, and these determine what moral behaviour we shall adopt. It is an argument of "history determines who you are". But under the new paradigm, I determine who I am by the actions I take. This allows for exceptions, it allows individuals with a common history and family to take on radically different moral stances. Although this is not common, it happens, and it is perhaps more common than we have been led to believe.

Not only does our history no longer define who we are, but our sources of authority are changing. Within the older idea of identity, authority was centralized into key and significant individuals - parents, prime ministers, school teachers, bosses, and so forth. The notion of expertise is also rooted in the idea that particular individuals may become "central authorities", simply because they have the right credentials, not necessarily because what they have to say is right or useful or valuable. In today's world of the blog, although central authorities get some coverage, this does not make what they have to say important, unless it makes sense. Within the purview of collective intelligence, what we each have to say contributes, but does not determine, global awareness. There is no centrality, no credentials, unless what one has to say reflects the collective understanding. Authority has become peripheral, and expertise, communal.

Finally, our old sense of identity was delimited by our belongings, by the groups to which we belonged - Canadians, Christians, academics, westerners, professors, men, etc. to name but a few that circumvent my identity. In today's world, however, we belong to fewer and fewer long term groups. Instead, we participate in networks, but networks are not defined by belongings but by flows. Within networks, relationships are constantly changing, and our presence is actualized by our activities, our actions in the now, not by our histories. We are constantly moving from one network to another. We do not "invest" in networks the same way we invested in groups in which we were members, rather we engage with networks and then switch or move on to new ones. The process is more dynamic, more fluid, less static, and our identities change likewise with each new participation.

To come back to the context of museum culture, about which I shall have more to say, to survive in the coming decades as our sense of identity continues its transformation, museums among many other institutions, will be called upon to change. Museums as promoters of culture and identity, as questioners and challengers, will continue to be needed, even more so now than in the past. But museums as centralized collections of artefacts will diminish. The notion of holding onto artefacts, material, tangible things, must be rethought within the new paradigm, or the collections will be disrupted and disbanded for lack of funds. Artefacts will have a role to play in the new identity structures, but only if ways are found to valorize them within the new arrangements, not by holding onto and defending old ideas about identity and culture.

These comments are, of course, valid for other institutions which will also need to change if they are survive. More on this another time.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

On Change, Action and Paradox

It is time to talk a little more about paradox and how to deal with it. As ideas about a major paradigm shift emerge within this blog, about major changes in how we understand ourselves and relate to each other, it becomes important to address the issue of how we may act, and how our actions affect the world unfolding around us.

In an earlier post, I suggested that paradox deals with contradictions that can be resolved. However, this isn't quite right. As a friend and colleague, Dr. Blake Poland, points out, "paradox is not necessarily easily resolved at the level of the contradictions it holds within it, but rather via the lateral shift in thinking it invites when one is prepared to hold the paradox". He goes on to suggest that "things are 'resolved' when we stop fighting them, when we accept them as they are and are thus able to see them anew, and new possibilities, from a qualitatively different vantage point". Hence dealing with paradox does not mean trying to think things through and force a resolution into being through action, but rather it means to hold the opposites within one's being until a path forward comes into being, emerging from its own nature. Dealing with paradox therefore means a kind of "not action".

I have long felt that the notion of choice is also problematical. We appear to be free to choose many things, what we eat for dinner, who we frequent and who our friends are, what job we do, and so forth. One of the most stressful periods of a person's life is often the period in late adolescence and early adulthood when we are asked to choose what kind of work we want to take up. It is assumed that one may examine the characteristics of a range of different activities, perhaps examine our own feelings about these, and then choose to invest in one of these activities. Is that really how we function, as human beings?

I am not so sure. My experience is that, over time, we find the work that "works" for us. Whatever "choice" we make during this "job choosing phase", quickly evolves and changes as we start to engage ourselves within these activities and we may end up in a job environment totally different from what we "expected". What "works for us" may have very little to do with our intellectual capabilities, and more to do with the sets of checks and balances that we need in our lives to function. Hence many people work in jobs that do not necessarily reflect themselves deeply, but that allow them to function within certain constraints (reconciling job and family, for instance).

Do we "choose" our lovers and life partners, in a similar way? Do we "try people out for size"? Again, I have my doubts. We may choose to date, or go to bed, with almost anyone, but that person will not long remain in our lives if they do not "fit" in ways that are invisible but all important. The relationship need not, on the surface, appear to be healthy to be "right" for us. Why we are attracted to certain people and not others is still a mystery, a mystery that has everything to do with the larger picture of who we are. We "choose" certain relationships because these relationships engage us, even though sometimes we may appear to be choosing the same type of person and hence appear to be "stuck".

From the perspective of dealing with paradox, there appears to be only one choice - with what level of commitment to I approach and hold the opposite sides of the paradox within myself, to what level do I allow myself to listen to the endless series of reflections between myself and the world, with what patience do I allow myself to stay steady as a rock until a path opens in front of me, partly of my own making but not forced?

To "force" a paradox into a resolution is to leave the paradox intact, and put off its resolution to another day. If I am not patient enough to stay steady, even though holding a paradox may be painful, until a lateral shift occurs and I can see the way forward, I may shake my head and step away from the paradox, and do something else. But this will mean the paradox will still be there when I come back to it. This is true about my work environments, my relationships, my life choices, and so forth.

Another aspect of this situation is the nature of action with regard to choose. It is often assumed that we intellectually choose and then put this choice into action. However, it may be that we act, and then intellectually justify the action as a "choice". "What I eat for dinner" may have less to do with my intellectual choices, "meat" or "fish", than to do with how I act in the now, rooted in a context that includes knowledge about what is in my fridge, knowledge about my own financial status, predisposition to plan and buy certain foods, and so forth. The idea that we intellectually decide and then implement the decision in action is probably wrong. Intellectually, we are not able to include all the necessary factors into our decision-making process. Instead, when we turn our attention away from our thoughts, that is when we may act.

This underlines the importance of the paradigm shift from identity based on history to identity as actualized in the now. How we act determines who we are. This is the reverse of the commonly held belief that "who we are determines how we act". Actually, of course, both are true. Part of the change underway also concerns our beliefs about ourselves, indeed, about the self. Beliefs are a part of identity, so this should not be surprising. We are becoming more focused on understanding who we are without intellectualizing this understanding. Perhaps attending to who we are would be a better term.

This affects not only personal acts but also social action. We are, increasingly, acting communally. This ability to act as a group has been enhanced by the collective awareness that arises from the internet - the broad circulation of blogs, chat, photos, videos, and so forth. We are "attending" to ourselves as a community. This is focussed not just on the larger issues of socio-economic organisation, the environment, and so forth, but also on the everyday details of our individual and collective lives. This increased self-knowledge, as a community, it part of our enhanced ability to act as a community. These actions, in retrospect, appear to be mysteriously coordinated, but no systematic planning of the whole seems to have been involved (some coordinated planning may be present in parts of the community, however).

As a community, via the diverse communication tools available to us, we are "holding the opposites" in our collective being. This is dealing with paradox in its full sense. Therefore, one of the most important acts we may take as individuals is to assist in the process of "attending to". This is what this particular blog is about... a way of assisting our collective intelligence to attend to issues of its own make-up and functioning.

More and more, how we organize our lives is related to our collective actions about the world. Each act engenders a change in awareness, in consciousness, in identity. And these changes lead in turn to newer possibilities for action. Therefore each act, especially those that we undertake under the auspices of attending to apparent opposites in our lives, carries a weight. It is often asked what we can do to help address a serious social problem. The answers are usually given in concrete terms. But simply attending to the issue and its relationships to our everyday lives, is a form of response that is, in the long term, of critical importance.

"What may I do to decrease child poverty in other parts of the world?" Acknowledge that there is a link between our lives and theirs. Attend to the fact that how I organize my life involves actions that propagate into the economy, and ultimately lead to socio-economic organizations that engender such poverty. Increase my knowledge of how my daily activities affect a child's well-being elsewhere on the planet. Share the results of your newly acquired knowledge.

These actions appear to be frustratingly simple, indirect and limited. But ultimately, paradoxically, they are the ones that are likely to be fruit. As e.e. cummings poem says, "only connect".

Monday, 21 May 2007

On Children

One of the most interesting properties of the changes underway, in our identity and our relationships, and our shift from a focus on orthodoxy and orthodox life situations to more paradoxical ones, is the changing experience of children. Children are at the heart of the change going on, and the current generation of young children will be the lever that shifts us out from under the rule of orthodoxy.

Paradoxically, our relationship to our children remains simultaneously both one of the more taboo subjects, and one of the areas where people have the most to say. Children remain, for the most part, one of the groups of people with the least amount of power over their own lives. It is all too easy to assert that children lack the emotional maturity to take charge of their lives, and to use this blanket argument to keep the status quo. The reality is starkly different - some children develop emotional maturity at an early age, and overall there are shifts and changes in how much and what kinds of maturity emerge over time. The landscape is constantly changing with children, and so a "one size fits all" argument simply does not apply.

Also, the idea that children should be kept "innocent", that is "ignorant" of key factors that affect their growth and development, is a recent idea that emerged in Victorian Britain and spread from there. The need to keep children ignorant was as much a response to their association with the role of women in that era as it was a social movement aimed at their betterment. In fact, most of the ideas we have about children are recent and developed to serve social, political and economic agendas rather than the well-being of children per se. We should be very careful about what we believe to be "natural" about childhood.

A number of studies have begun to emphasize the fact that families are becoming less centrally organized and less structured as a function of duty and authority. "The modern family being classically founded upon duty (central value) and the principle of authority to settle relationships between individuals, its main features are opposed to those of the contemporary family. The latter, which started to emerge over the sixties, is characterized by both the prevalence of parent-child relationships symmetrization and the emergence of the search for immediate pleasure. The change from parental authority to consensus as a principle ruling the relationships within families leads to many consequences later noticed through changes in the construction of the child's psyche along his development and in the relationships dynamics....When consensus is at the center of the family, and according to concrete meetings with the other offered by the thousand and one situations met in the daily life, the aims and satisfaction modalities of the child's impulses will evolve into a relation often based on either strength or seduction." (Lazartigues, Morales & Planche, 2005)

This particular study highlights the fact that parent-child relations have changed to become more symmetrical - the child is increasingly viewed as a "decider" in his or her own right, on a par with adult deciders, or at least with negotiation rights. However, the article also emphasizes the focus on immediate gratification, the characteristic of the children of the baby-boomer generation. The growing importance of the environmental movement and other changes under way suggest that later generations of children will be less focused on immediate pleasure and more focused on a balancing of personal and social need.

Children are still raised within an expectation of orthodoxy, even though the family situations in which they grow are becoming more diversified. Each child believes their family situation to be representative of everyone else's, a kind of prototypical experience of family that is assumed to be valid generally. Ensuring the children recognize the paradoxical uniqueness of their particular family arrangements will be predicated on the cultural paradigm shift to paradox relationships. As the upcoming generations of adults embrace these changes, each in turn, their children will become more attuned to both the differences and the similarities of their own family life to that of others.

It may even be the case that the experience of conformity and difference as experienced by children and adolescents will change as a result of this broader social awareness. Although some of this may be necessary experimentation with social versus personal identity, it is likely that the experience is also fuelled by overly orthodox family attitudes that are felt to be a straightjacket by young people as their sense of identity emerges.

As children and adolescents become aware of their identity, the nature of their surroundings will affect their ability to recognize and work with paradox. When functioning within orthodox social arrangements such as the nuclear family, but also single parents and other situations that are promoted as typical, or within peer groups, young people learn to repress those aspects of themselves that are not recognized within the orthodoxy. This becomes part of their shadow self. Later, as an adult, the shadow self will come to haunt one and a number of ways that are both significant but uncomfortable, and that have large consequences for society as a whole.

Some creation of a shadow self is probably inevitable, but to the extent that a young person remains attuned to the contradictions involved in personal versus social life, and is allowed or encouraged to remain aware of the unconscious repressions that may be in play, it may be possible to avoid some of the worse excesses of a strong but unacknowledged shadow self that plagues our current society.

A strong and unacknowledged shadow self emerges when we are forced to suppress elements of our behaviour that are considered to be inconsistent with current orthodoxy. Acknowledging our shadow self is a characteristic response related to accepting our own inconsistency. The human psyche is a jumble of different, distinct processes - the feeling of unity and integrity is an illusion. Instead, there may be any number of inconsistencies, gaps, contradictions, or exagerations in our ongoing functioning. Furthermore, there are several distinct sub-personalities within each of us. In addition, these distinct processes and personalities mature at different rates when we are young, and hence the inconsistencies and so forth will mutate over time. To the extent that our children learn to accept this about themselves, and that we as adults acknowledge them, our ability to function more effectively and develop social and communal structures that are more holistic and balanced will likewise grow.

The evidence is becoming incontravertable - the social and psychological experience of children is changing. It has already changed significantly over the 20th century. It is now undergoing an even more rapid change, from one generation to the next. Recognition of this is key to understanding the changes in how the world functions that are coming into play. Not only this, there are opportunities to affect the change as it unfolds. There is an urgent need for a broad group of individuals to understand these changes, how they will likely affect our social and institutional structures, and what we may do to steward or guide these developments as they unfold.

Friday, 18 May 2007

On Relationships

The new perspective on identity presented in the previous posts has substantial consequences for both how we form relationships and how we function within and develop family. We shall examine each of these issues in turn.

If our sense of personal identity is shifting towards a peripheral organisation, towards taking responsibility for one’s actions in the now, and towards a multiple and inconsistent set of identities, then these changes will be necessarily reflected in the relationships we form. In fact our relationships are one of the tools that are in use to help forge the new identity. Relationships have an inertia of their own. As long as the majority of them were rooted in the older identity paradigm, change was slow, but today, increasingly, relationships incorporate some of the shifts in how identity is constructed.

Almost all of our knowledge of ourselves is reflected knowledge. A person is more than 90% "underground" - that is, aside from the occasional fleeting thought in our conscious minds, almost everything else in who we are is unconscious, and not directly accessible to us. Our memories store both factual knowledge and procedural knowledge, but procedural knowledge is not stored in a way that allows us to recall it as we would a fact. And although we may store information about ourselves in our factual knowledge memory store, this information is not the result of direct observation of who we are, but rather some form of interpreted knowledge.

Because all of the really important information about ourselves and who we are is automatic and unconscious, we have only three means of examining it - watch "thought/feeling" events as they flit through our conscious minds, make note of the actions we take, and observe how other people react to us. The first is problematical, because the events that happen in our conscious mind actually tell us very little about what is going on in our unconscious. I will come back to the second means later. The primary means is by studying other people. We reflect an image of ourselves back from the people who surround us. This is the function of "projection", and it is fundamentally necessary in order to be able to determine anything of importance about ourselves.

I have heard people say to me, "you're projecting, stop it!", or "you're not seeing me as I am, you're projecting". Well, the truth of the matter is, it is impossible to turn this off... we are always "projecting" all the time. It is how we make sense of ourselves and our relationships to others. The trick is not to stop doing it, but rather to stop doing it unconsciously. It is to known when and how you are doing it, so that one can take this effect into account when untangling information about ourselves from that about the people with whom we are interacting. When we become aware of how we project ourselves onto other people, then we may mentally "subtract out" things we know about ourselves and are left with inferences about the other person. This is actually what is meant by someone who says "stop projecting"!

Modern research in cognitive science has discovered some of the neurological machinery that underlies this process. Hence so called "mirror neurons" fire when we act or emote, but also when we observe the same emotions and actions in another person. Hence the reflecting process is built into our brain structure.

Incidently, this phenomenon of reflection underlines one of the main facets of the human condition - we cannot function effectively in isolation from other living beings.

When I say that we are reflected in our relationships, of course I mean all the varied forms of relationships, including family, lovers, friends, colleagues, business partners, acquaintances, students, clients, teachers, therapists and passing strangers.

Unfortunately, most people are unaware of how they project, and indeed, need to project, their own being into their relationships in order to acquire an image of who they are. Becoming aware of this process is a crucial step to taking responsability for who one is, and for ensuring that one is integral to one's own nature, that one is not dependent on other people's actions to determine who we are.

The first major shift in identity, away from a predominant focus on one's history and towards one's actions in the present, is expressed here as the need to develop greater awareness of how we "project" ourselves into our relationships. The use of our personal histories, which has been our principle way of defining the self, will become increasingly outmoded. Indeed, within the older paradigm, much of our self knowledge was organized into our personal history. Hence we all have the experience of knowing "how we have always felt" when relating to certain kinds of person, and assuming that this historical knowledge is a reliable indicator of what we shall feel, say and do in the present. We have all also been surprised on occasions when what we feel, say and do is quite different from our historical expectations - it would seem that other factors affect our behaviour and not only "what we have always done". In fact, our reliance on personal history may have biased us towards its having a greater effect on our current actions that it need necessary do. 21st century relationships will revolve around more awareness of who we are and how we interact than did 20th century relationships - whether these be intimate relationships or passing strangers or anything in-between.

We see signs of these changes in all our different social environments, even though many relationships are still mired in the older paradigm. In a society in which we must co-exist, side-by-side, with people who are different than we are, there are both more occasions and a greater need for being aware of who we are and how we interact. Today's men are highly aware of the different discourses that surround the relationships between men and women, and comments made today are offered in full knowledge of these complexities. The same is true of women with regard to men, perhaps even more so. Things that were said unthinkingly in the 1950's cannot be said in the same way today. Usually, the individual not only speaks in ways that recognize the surrounding discussions, but he or she will situate him or herself in relation to this discourse when speaking to each new person. How we talk to children has changed, and how we talk to our parents is changing.

While for much of the 20th century (and previous centuries), we were focused on issues of duty and obligation in these contexts (to intimate partners, but also to family, colleagues, and so forth), today we are much less willing to engage in duty to the exclusion of personal factors. That is, each instance of duty is modulated by specifics of how we feel about a person, what we think about them, what our values are and where they are situated in our value system. In the old days, duty meant duty, independent of personal factors. In the 21st century, duty is still present, but it is modulated by other factors. This again highlights the shift from orthodoxy to paradoxy.

The second characteristic of the paradigm shift in identity is the move from a central focus to a peripheral one. How is this expressed in our relationships?

Throughout the 20th century, the principle social unit was the nuclear family. The nuclear family is a complex unit, but includes a monogamous intimate relationship between two people, usually a man and a woman, along with a sharing of responsability between these two with regard to the needs and responsabilities of raising children. The nuclear family is a centralist nexus of relationships, a necessary organisation in the face of rapid socio-economic expansion and change. However, by the latter part of the 20th century, the signs of stress and breakdown in the nuclear family were becoming a flood!

The "orthodox" heterosexual couple was one of the first elements to break down. Today, many gay couples are clamouring for recognition within marriage, after having obtained a certain level of recognition as longterm life arrangements. However, the couple as a social unit is also under threat from a variety of sources. Increasingly, friendships, which were long seen as a well-defined relationship, are diversifying into a range of possible relationships. Individuals today do not, for the most part, expect to be in a life-long intimate relationship with a single partner. Many may still yearn for this, but most do not expect it. Nor do they expect all their needs to be met through one person. In today's emerging world, relationships are characterised by more variety in form and nature, and more pluralistic. This is an area that shall see substantial more change over the coming years as the straightjacket of orthodoxy, which has held relationships frozen in form for a long time, loses more and more its hold.

I shall be exploring issues of family life in more detail later on. What is important to note at this point is that the nature of our relationships are becoming more pluralistic and more diversified, hence more peripheral in organisation.

Finally, the large number of extra-marital affairs that is known to occur in both sexes, highlights the fact that people are not consistent, even within themselves, certainly not within orthodox social arrangements. The need for various sexual partners, and the need for intimate partners who meet different needs, the separation of issues of child support from issues of intimacy, friendship, sexuality, identity, and so forth, are all alligned with the shift towards a multiple and inconsistent identity.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

The Changing Nature of Identity

In my last post, I introduced the idea that our identity is changing, that our understanding of identity is undergoind a paradigm shift. I want to discuss this in more detail, as this underlies much of the discussions that will occur later, and also because it may be one of the changes that is the most transformative for the individual.

I indicated three ways in which our understanding of identity is changing
- from a focus on past history to present actions;
- from a focus on centrality to peripherality; and
- from a focus on a single, self-consistent sense of identity to a multiple, inconsistent sense of identity.

Before pursuing this line of argument, however, it behooves us to examine more closely the notion itself of "identity". In the 1980's, identity was defined as "a system of representations, feelings and strategies, organized in defense of its primary object...identity is a structured and differentiated model simultaneously rooted in the past..., in the coordination of current behavior and in the legitimized future (projects, ideals, values and styles)". Hence we see that both one's historical past and one's actualized present form part of one's identity, along with one's future oriented ideals, one's representations and one's strategies.

Wikipedia gives a more straightforward definition, as "an individual's comprehension of him or herself as a discrete, separate entity". In its section on "Identity Formation", Wikipedia also states "Pieces of the entity's actual identity include a sense of continuity, a sense of uniqueness from others, and a sense of affiliation." This underlines what I said in the previous post, that identity is not only about differentiating ourselves from others, but also a set of affiliations with others, of commonalities.

Our personal history usually echoes both these properties. Often a history is given as "I was born on such and such a date, at such a place, and my early life was spending doing such and such". This constitutes a differentiation - most of the time, the time, date and place of birth constitute a near unique marker of who we are, and our early history further emphasizes our distinctness. On the other hand, our biography may also state "I was born of parents with such an ethnic background in such a country, and when we left this locale we joined this new community". This part of our history consists of our membership in various groups. Not only individuals but also groups and communities are defined and described in these terms - it is the movement between what differentiates us from others and what brings us together with others that constitutes our particular identity.

In today's online environment, however, we often leave this information behind us. For example, within the environment of Second Life, the online virtual world, many people refuse to provide any information about who they are "in Real Life" and it is considered impolite to insist. Not all blogs are "authored" by real life identities either - usually, the only validation requested is an email, and with the ability to create emails with very little identification, blogs may be authored by individuals whose "true identity" remains completely obscure. Within these environments, it is not your history that defines who you are, it is how you act towards people, what you say and how you say it, that determines how you are to be treated and whether you shall have any popularity.

These changes are not restricted to our online behavior, however. Rather, they are illustrated by what happens online. In today's world, people often have more than one job. They may act very differently in each work environment, indeed, the perception their co-workers have of them may be suggestive of entirely different people. People are often quite different in their family lives than their work lives. Increasingly, relationships, even intimate ones, are transient - by moving on to a new relationship, we can set our "behavior history" back to zero. The same is true of creating a new family following the fragmentation of an older one. We typically move from one job to another, and if we are stable within an employment situation, we find other ways to change our "reflecting environment" so that we may take on different roles and modes of being.

Of course, many people lament these changes. They are treated as symptomatic of a "breakdown" of social mores and values, or of a generation that has "gone mad". This is perhaps a natural response to the loss of a way of life, of a sense of stability. However, there are no indications that the change is temporary, that the new generations will switch back to the older way of functioning. Instead, the change is accelerating. Therefore, instead of seeing this as a temporary phenomenon, a kind of transient breakdown "until people figure things out", it is time to switch our understanding and see this for what it is... the emergence of a new kind of personal identity, a new social fabric, a dynamically stable system state that is likely to persist for the foreseeable future, indeed, to become even more esconced.

The second dimension of the change is the switch from viewing ourselves and our communities and institutions as being "central", of "central importance". This is less obvious, but of critical importance. We have functioned within societies that were globally organized as a set of centers. Each community (family, city, nation, people) viewed itself as having concentric circles within its interior and a boundary that separated it from the outside. Hence a family's core might be the parents or even grandparents, the larger circle would include chidren, then grandchildren, and so forth. Cities are viewed as having cores, and nations have capitals that constitute a kind of core. As individuals, we also see ourselves as having a "core" (our heart, perhaps, our mind, or for some people our soul) and a boundary around the self, that may or may not include other people (our children, our life partner). Actions we undertake have more important consequences when they occur in relation to the core region than near or outside the boundary. In addition, one can expect the consequences of actions to dissipate over time, a transference of the notion of centrality to the temporal domain. This mode of thinking about the self and about our communities has dominated history.

Within a peripheral or networked view, there is no clear notion of a "core". All neighborhoods are equally important. There are no gradations of membership, with some being "more representative" than others. There is also no boundary, not in the traditional sense. There is no "outside" - alternatively, everything may be viewed as "outside", including the self. Any actions I take remain active and present, they do not dissipate. They lose influence only when other actions occur to compete with them. Furthermore, they propagate throughout the periphery, and become present everywhere. This startlingly different idea of identity is the one that is beginning to take hold of our society.

Within the internet, as stated earlier, my status in life has little bearing on my importance. My actions, and the image of my actions, is what determines how much other people listen. However, my actions do not dissipate either. If I publish a blog, the blog is as present ten years later as it was the day I published it. Not only that, what I say will inform other people's blogs. And lest one believe that this behavior is limited to the net, notice that within our work environments, something similar is taking place. Even in our home environment, what our parents say does not have the same status of authority as it did in another epoch. Instead, what we say as parents is accepted by our children when these affirmations have the "ring of truth". If they are poorly motivated, our children may well reject them, and fail to respond as expected. People are less and less willing to accept the "word of experts" - they question their doctor's advice, their lawyer's instructions, based on information they have researched themselves. Like the shift from a focus on history to our actions in the present, the shift away from centrality and authority is here to stay. It represents a profound change in how we function within our social environments.

The third change is towards a multiple, sometimes inconsistent identity rather than a single, coherent identity. Again, there are many signs of this occuring in our everyday lives. This is more than simply a question of point of view. It is not the case that we are simply placing greater emphasis on the multiple facets of who we are, but that we remain organized around a single, coherent identity. This shift follows from the movement away from orthodoxy towards paradoxy.

In Wikipedia's definitions of identity, the emphasis was placed on the idea that identity is a perception of how one is continuous, different and yet also part of other identities. The issue of continuity harkens back to the ideas put forward by John Locke in the 17th century, one of the first thinkers to struggle seriously with the issue of identity. From a modern perspective, one could suggest that our identity is a product of our relationship with the world around us, that is, it follows from ecological considerations.

In Middle Age Europe, the world was conceived of as a unity dedicated to the glory of God, an orthodoxy from which all forms of identity were derived. When social functioning is viewed within an orthodox framework, then personal identity is necessarily viewed in terms of this framework, both in terms of differentiation and affiliation. Within the Christian orthodoxy, the self is defined as belonging to a spectrum of behaviors that may be good or evil, and it is submission to authority (of God, of the word of God, or of the priests or ministers who represent God) that allows us to determine right behavior.

Within an orthodox framework, there is only one self. All forms of reflection of who one is are subsumed within this framework. Within orthodoxy, inconsistencies are expressly and intentionally supressed - that is the nature of an orthodoxy. This process of rejecting that which does not fit is also applied to the self. Identity, therefore, is defined as self-consistent within an orthodox environment, but this self-consistency is achieved only by a process of systematically eradicating inconsistencies from one's identity.

Hence the idea that one is self-consistent is an illusion that is carefully nourished within an orthodoxy.

In today's world, however, we are witnessing the breakdown of orthodoxy in its myriad forms. In particular, we are left with no "central" organizing orthodoxy, but with a multitude of ideas and arguments about the nature of being, of self and of community. The illusion of self-consistency is therefore stripped away. We may therefore embrace our inconsistencies, accept them as part of what it is to be human.

Likewise, in the absence of a single organizing orthodoxy, such as the Christian church provided for millenia, and more recently has been replaced for some by feminism, for others by political correctness, and still others by sociopolitical agendas such as neoliberalism or the New Right, in their absence we may proceed to affirm that the self is not a single unit, but rather a multitude of interacting elements. Modern cognitive theory confirms this view - our psychological makeup is very far from being unitary, in fact, even the notion of continuity is suspect as a feature of identity!

Hence the multiplication of contexts in which we make take on alternative personas of our being, whether these be online or in our daily lives, do not present simply different facets of ourselves - rather, they allow us to explore different investitures, different subsets of our ecoself, some of which may not appear to be parts of the same person. Indeed, the problem with the single identity/multiple facets perspective is that the multiple facets are generally understood as being windows into the same being. However, humans are characterized by an ability to construct many different beings from the same set of constituents - in the extreme, a Hitler can enjoy art and small children on the one hand, and promote the destruction of millions of people on the other. Most people consider Hitler to be either a monster or a highly deranged individual, and therefore assume these distinct personas to be atypical, but while we are not all Hitlers, we all have the ability to construct ourselves out of diametrically opposite subsets of our total being.

We are shifting, therefore, from an identity construction process that consists of pruning and trimming the inconsistencies from one's identity, to an alternative construction paradigm, that allows us to explore identity construction across a much broader canvas that we have tended to do in the past. I like to think of our being as a universe in itself, from whose materials we can construct several individual identities, and each of these forms its own identity ecosystem in relationship to other people.

If identity was just formed from our psyches, no such change would be possible. But of course our identities form from the collision between our genetic origins, our unfolding lives and our environment. Identity is the result of a system, and the system as a whole is evolving and changing. While we remain human, we are discovering that human identity is larger than we believed, than we were led to believe by the institutions that make our up societies.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Convergent End States and the Post-Sustainable Society

One of the characteristics of a convergent dynamics is that it is relatively straightforward to talk about the system states towards which the system is converging, but much harder to situate the intermediate or transitional states that will need to come into being before convergence is achieved. In the case of divergent dynamics (that is, human history up to this point in time), only extreme end states could be described, that is, those expected if growth were to continue unchecked, and these were catastrophic scenarios.

However, a discussion of end states in a convergent world will help frame the changes that will likely occur over the coming decades. As discussed in the previous blog, not all of these will come into being on a linear time scale... in fact, most will not. Some will not emerge until a series of crises occurs, others will become increasingly present in particular regions and slowly spread to others, while some may occur worldwide over a very short period of time. Determining which are likely to occur when is also not easy to do.

Also, these are not so much predictions as observations of dynamics that are already in play. These are complex dynamics, and not all the intermediate interactions will be obvious to begin with. In addition, other dynamics than straightforward system dynamics are also in play. So-called non linear effects, resulting from chaotic systems behavior, will also have a role to play and will modify these dynamics.

With these blogs, as the story unfolds, we shall study a number of these convergent states - including education, the economy, relationships and the family, science and technology, the media arts, religion and spirituality, government, community, health, and crime. Collectively, I call this set of convergent states, the "postsustainable society", since they are predicated on the need to achieve sustainability as a precondition.

Remember, the overall conclusion is that we are moving towards a locally heterogeneous but globally homogeneous society of near zero growth but high interconnectedness, with no remaining "dumping ground" for getting rid of undesirables, whether these be products (e.g. waste products) or people (undesirables). People with widely different worldviews and values will no longer be buffered from each other by distance or social conventions, hence orthodoxies will no longer have the same power over our souls as they have had in the past. Instead, contradictions and paradoxes at many different levels shall be the rule of the day, and we shall be required to learn, both individually and collectively, to live with the uncertainties these will engender.

Our identity as individuals as well as individuals within a collective, is changing. Within the new world coming into being, what distinguishes us from each other will be less and less our life history, and more and more our actions in the present. This is not because our lives will be similar to each other, but rather because the lives of all individuals will be clearly demarcated by their differences with regard to others. Although we operate under the illusion that are lives are different from each other, our identities today are largely conditioned by common histories, by our sense of belonging to particular communities based on similar histories. In the future, although we shall continue to belong to different groups and derive some of our sense of identity from these associations, our values and sense of self will result more from taking larger responsability for our actions in the now.

This shift in identity from a focus on the past to a focus on the present is already occuring. In extreme form, shootings by individuals in schools, for example, are a misguided way of affirming identity based on action rather than history. Within culturally and ethnically mixed societies, one's ethnic roots no longer act as a key to identity. Instead, what one does is what counts. While we may deplore the media focus on stardom, actors and singers are evaluated within that world by what they do... or at least, what the public perceives they do (hence the focus on "image"). Although an overly emphatic focus on image can be unhealthy, animage is more related to what a person does than to what history they have. This is a big change from earlier centuries, where "who you were" was determined by your family and personal history.

Likewise, within the still rapidly evolving environment of the internet, it is "what you say" and "how you say it" that determines your proeminence, not your particular history. Identity is largely about reflections - and in today's world, what gets reflected back at us has more to do with our actions and words "in the now" than our personal histories or family backgrounds, or even what groups or communities we belong to.

Another, related aspect of this change in how we understand identity is the shift from a central to a peripheral focus. In earlier epochs, things that were "important" were things that were "central". I argue that the "centre" held a privileged place in a world undergoing exponential expansion (the past two thousand years), but that a central place is going to become less and less important in a convergent world. Indeed, it is going to become increasingly more difficult to even define the "centre" and what is "central". In a highly connected, zero growth world, there is no obvious centre. As our society moves towards a convergent state, our centralities are going to dampen out. Already there has been a fundamental shift in the way we view cities. For much of the 20th century, cities were viewed as attractive "centres", towards which the population was moving from the so-called "hinterland". By the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, our understanding of cities is changing. Cities are connected to each other in a network, a world-wide network, and cities, despite their historical, cultural and linguistic differences, are becoming more alike to each other. Predictions are that within a few decades, following current trends, 90% of the world's population will live in cities. Within such an arrangement, cities are no longer centres, they are simply the substrate within which people live. Instead of focussing on cities as centres, they have become part of a peripheral world.

Although from a technical perspective, one might claim that with the disappearance of centres, the notion of periphery also loses its meaning, it remains true that the dynamics of a network resemble those of a peripheral world more than they do a central world. Hence to say that our identity is shifting to a peripheral focus is a useful affirmation for highlighting the changes that are occuring.

This shift from viewing the self as central, to a world in which what is important is peripheral, is of capital importance to understand. The consequences are enormous. Within the world coming into being, it is not central control that matters, but the ability mobilize opinion and action throughout a large part of the periphery that counts. The internet, which is organized in just this way, is a case in point. Even governments must today act in such a way - the era of a government deciding unilaterally on some key international action is gone. Without the collaboration of other countries, the US could not have effectively invaded Iraq (if one were to call the invasion effective - in many ways, the difficulties concerning sustained involvement in Iraq today are a result of this "peripheralization" of action... the old ways of acting no longer work as they used to, in a world society organized in terms of centres).

This shift in how we understand and construct identity is radical, it represents almost a complete 180 degree turn. Many of today's institutions are struggling with this change - unless they learn to promote "peripheralization", these institutions will likely fail and collapse. Institutions such as schools and universities, hospitals, cooperatives, banks, governments, and so forth, but also less tangible institutions and practices such as marriage, family, nations, ethnic communities, and so forth. Often the changes under way are ascribed to the effects of new technology, but this new technology operates within a broader framework of social change that is often not understood. Certainly the high connectedness of our world is a result of new technology, but the effervescence of new technology development is the result of socio-economic forces that have been in play for decades, even centuries. It is not necessary to determine which is the cause of the change... but it is necessary to be conscious of social factors in play, as these help orient our future actions more than trying to second-guess where technological development will go next!

Another feature of the change from a central to a peripheral organization of identity, is that identity is increasingly viewed as being multiple. Within a centralist perspective, we were perceived as having one unique and internally consistent identity, characterised, as indicated above, by our person history. Within a peripheral understanding, however, identity may be multiple, and even inconsistent. This is highlighted within the digital world of the internet, by the increasing multiplication of different "identity masks", but it is also underlined by the large number of passwords and identification numbers we must carry around with us in today's world. Twenty years ago, we had only a few of these identification numbers and passwords - today, most of us carry dozens and sometimes hundreds. In today's online world, we may have several personas, avatars, or other representations. These are not, however, mere "faces", they represent distinct modes of interaction and reflection with other people, and hence consist of "mini-identities".

In summary, the convergent state towards which the world is moving is characterised by a change in how we understand and construct identity. We are moving away from a focus on centrality, past history and a unique self-consistent identity, and towards a focus on periphery, identity based on actions within the now, and multiple forms of identity, not necessarily consistent with each other. Although this corresponds to a convergent end state within a postsustainable environment, there are numerous examples of the change in identity paradigm in operation today. This highlights the importance of identifying likely end states, as this allows us to understand today's world in new ways.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Timing and Dynamics - Towards the Collapse of Several Socio-economic Balloons

One of the comments I have received concerning my blog concerns issues of timing (Dr. Blake Poland, at the University of Toronto). Although Dr. Poland agrees that, in the long term, my views may be correct, he argues that the absolute numbers of population are continuing to increase, and that inequalities between nations, for example, the rich and the poor, are widening, not decreasing.

There are several points I want to take up in response to these arguments... indeed, this provides the opportunity to bring these issues into the discussion earlier than I had originally planned. First of all, my primary argument is that the main driver of socio-economic organisation is not population numbers, but population growth and the rate of change of population growth. Clearly the numbers are also part of the picture, but the population growth has always been the primary driver of economic growth. The numbers are important in the sense that, within our current management strategies, we are near the limits of growth that the planet can support - many more people, and society will collapse due to catastrophic failure of our ability to feed everyone. The collision with our environment is also largely mediated by the total population numbers, combined with our current socio-economic organisation, which has been singularly ineffective in changing how we pollute the atmosphere and hence led us into the growing environmental crisis that is developing around us. The numbers are also important in terms of density of people on the Earth - I claim that one of the reasons why local population dynamics becomes important in a globally convergent world is because of the density of people in our cities, which is where the 21st century population is living.

So having pointed out the importance of the absolute numbers of population, let us examine in more detail the issue of population growth rates and the rate of change of such growth. Of course, it is this rate of change that has taken a nosedive, from a high positive rate to a substantive negative value. This change is confirmed by several studies, although different researchers give different dates and reasons for when it occured. Using statistics available on line, we may note several studies in the mid-1990's noted that the rate of change was still increasing (Pimentel et al, 1996). However, the discussion presented by J. Kimball, dated September 2006, indicates that the rate of population growth peaked in the early 1990s. On the other hand, Wikipedia assigns the peak in growth rate to the year 1963, and the peak growth rate doubling time to have been 31 years. Hence, although different sources provide different dates, there is agreement that the change occured same time ago, but wasn't yet clearly measurable.

Within system dynamics, there is a distinction to be made between the rate of population growth, and the rate of change of population growth. Let me illustrate. Today, the total world population is about 6.5 billion. The growth rate, as I indicated earlier, has declined from its peak value but is still very high . The rate of growth is usually expressed as the number of years it would take to double the population numbers at the current rate of growth. This number is presently close to 60 years - in 60 years, the population of the planet, if the rate of growth were to continue, would be 13 billion. In another 60 years, it would be 26 billion, and so forth. At it's peak, it was closer to 30 years. A doubling rate of 60 years is still very, very high, and the world's economy will continue to be driven by this rate of growth for some time.

My argument, however, is that our socio-economic organization is predicated, at least in part, upon the rate of change of the growth rate, and not only on the growth rate itself. Hence the growth rate has steadily increased for the past hundred years, indeed, the past several hundred years. The doubling rate has been shortening for a long period of time. It has been the shortening of the doubling time that has dramatically exacerbated many of our socio-economic difficulties. The extreme stress on the environment is a result of this shortening doubling time, but so also are a number of more subtle aspects of social organization.

When the doubling period is shortening, what this means is that a population unit (i.e. a city or a country) never gets the chance to "catch its breath" before the next stage of growth overtakes it. Stability in socio-economic structures in not possible under such circumstances. Each time society adjusts to a given rate of growth, developing social mechanisms for introducing new production elements, society is forced to readjust again and develop yet other social mechanisms. This was the characteristic feature of the 20th century, of change spiralling ever faster, and each generation forced to reinvent its ways of functioning. This is often attributed to the development of technology, but this, too, is driven by the shortening of the doubling period in the population.

In the 20th century, as each developed country's population growth flattened out, however, the growth rate changed its nature. Economic growth shifted from production for internal markets to production for external markets, and also the economy went through several retoolings, resulting in the emergence of new products for both internal and later external markets. Let there be no mistake, however, even though a particular country's population growth may stabilize, the country's economic development remains dependant on the global population dynamics. Hence, countries such as the United States, whose population demographics are nearly flat, benefit from high growth rates because of exports and retooling.

Jane Jacobs, in her book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, argued that the natural economic unit for human communities is a city, and that our current organizations into nations is artificially maintained and counterproductive in the long term. One of the possible ways that nations, as they are currently organized, are maintained likely follows from the shortening doubling time of population growth. Several studies (e.g. Rosenau, 1999; Godfrey, 2004) underline the fact that today's nations are organized in ways that are different than, say, a hundred years ago. To hold countries together, they need powerful legal and constitional frameworks, but they are also held together either by high growth rates (in the case of developing nations), or high levels of exchange with foreign economies (in the case of the developed world), especially high levels of export. Essentially, there are social and economic dynamics that keep everything in movement, and hence prevent the collapse that might occur naturally in the absence of such movement. High levels of export depend on the existence of countries with lower levels of productivity, the so-called developing nations. The latter, in turn, rely on even poorer nations for export markets.

However, countries whose ability to contribute products to the global marketplace is too low, will not be able to use imports from the richer nations and hence will become poorer over time.

This analysis highlights several points:

1) high economic growth rates are ultimately linked to both high population growth rates at the planetary scale, and to the shortening of the doubling time, although there may be several intermediate linkages in the causal chain;

2) high growth rates exacerbate inequalities in the system, which tend to grow over time, because for a time these inequalities generate additional economic growth;

and, following from these two premises:

3) the change to a lengthening of the population doubling time means that economic growth must begin to slow on a global scale;

4) with the slowing of economic growth, several artificially maintained "balloons" will start to collapse.

As long as the global economy was growing, and growth was accellerating, the poorest nations had a hope of one day crossing the threshold to a level of productivity that would allow them to "buy in" to the system ... much as happened with the Asian economies in the closing years of the 20th century. But once economic growth begins to slow, their hopes of crossing this threshold will also start to dwindle. It has likewise been pointed out that many of the poorest nations are saddled with a geographic context which makes it very difficult to develop a sustainable economy - they tend to be landlocked and in regions where climate in inhospitable (Sachs, Jeffrey D., 2005, Can Extreme Poverty Be Eliminated?, in Scientific American, September edition.). Without a renewed effort on the part of developed and developing nations to provide direct assistance to these countries, the world will be headed for a major crisis of poor versus rich nations, a crisis for which there have been warning signs for decades.

At the same time, however, perhaps not for a few decades yet, nations themselves as political and economic entities will feel a pressure towards collapse, as the global drivers of internal movement start to drop out. This won't happen tomorrow, the growth rate is still too high, but as the growth rate sinks below some as yet unknown threshold value, consequences of this order of magnitude will start to appear in our social structures. The system will start to fracture. Some pundits predict an international economic crisis in the 2030's, based on similar arguments. It would be nice if we humans were smart enough to avoid such a crisis, but it is unlikely. To do so would mean acting now, and as we have seen with the environmental crisis, until the signs are all about us and "in our face", we do very little. Once the symptoms become clear enough to see them all around us, it is too late to be able to stop a crisis, it is only possible to diminish its effects and try to avoid system collapse.

Monday, 7 May 2007

The Importance of Paradox in a Convergent World

All right, so let us accept the idea that we live in a convergent world instead of a divergent one, as argued in the previous blogs. What does that mean? And what does this have to do with paradox?

The world we have entered is a world that is converging towards a state of negligible growth within a finite space. Any growth or development that occurs, once convergence is achieved, will have to be first of all qualitative rather than quantitative. Hence, we may replace an existing product with a new one, engendering the development of a new industry, for example, but only at the cost of the decline of an older industry. If the new industry uses resources more efficiently, there will be some net growth. However, unlimited global expansion of resource use will become impossible.

Today, we function within a growth economy because the population is expanding, and because there are markets outside our own sphere of influence. The expanding population has always been the largest driver of the economy, to the point that it is not understood how a stable economy can function in the absence of such growth. The expanding population also drives large differentials between the rich and the poor, the expansion of space and resources, the conversion of the environment into waste products, scientific progress, the confrontations between nations, and so forth.

The new, convergent growth regime corresponds to a period where differences between populations, including economic differences and living standards, will be evening out (partly as a result of the increased connectivity), population growth will be declining and a balance between resource production and population use of these resources will need to be achieved. A highly connected, zero growth, planetary economy will therefore entail profound changes in the ways our societies are structured and how they operate, and these changes may well engender additional transformations, up to and including aspects of our psychic makeup.

This zero growth state corresponds to another profound change, of which we are all much more aware – the global manner in which the world is now connected via the internet. A sustainable state of socio-economic survival with a population that is close to the productivity limit of the planet is, by its very nature, a world characterized by a circular flow of information and cause and effect. In other words, the world is sufficiently dense and closed back on itself that our actions will come back to haunt us. The whole idea of not needing to care about the consequences of one’s actions is operative only in a world undergoing expansion. The nature of the expansion ensures that consequences may seep away – this is what it means to say the evolution of the world is divergent.

The emergence of the internet exacerbates the effect of closure still further. In the world coming into being, all our acts will reflect off our surroundings and come back to affect us. The need to be held accountable for our actions is already widely felt – in the coming decades, it will become a necessity. This will have profound consequences for both corporate and individual behavior. At the same time, human diversity will remain – indeed, it will be enhanced. When social pressure increases, people, by their very nature, rebel. People will seek ways of living and expressing that escape these pressures, whether this be adulterous affairs in a marriage, new spiritual explorations, the rise of certain forms of crime, new forms of creative expression, or any other form of individual and group expression. Values will differ from one group to another, identities likewise. Under increased socio-economic pressure for accountability, this will lead to a diversification of human interest groups, a multiplication of different interests, and hence to the increasing co-existence of extremes and groups in opposition. My central argument here, is that these opposing tendencies, and many others that will come into play, will create a social fabric that is characterized by opposites that co-exist side-by-side, and that new forms of resolution will be called into being. In the world of expansion, groups with radically different values did not always need to constantly rub shoulders. In the world coming into being, this will become the norm.

On the other hand, while we are looking at substantial changes in behavior, both at an organizational and, eventually, at an individual level, many things will remain similar to what they are today. Human nature, overall, is still human nature. The new society must be as diverse as the one today, or it cannot function. It must be able to accommodate viewpoints that dissent, even from widely held moral principles. The system that emerges will, therefore, be characterized by larger local inhomogeneities, in order to accommodate the increased global uniformity that follows from dynamical convergence.

In a zero growth economy characterized by high interconnectedness, the differences between one group and its neighbors will be exacerbated. Contradictions will co-exist side by side. Today’s global inhomogeneities and expanding population act as buffers against this situation, but these buffers will diminish over the next decades. In today’s world, we isolate our cultural and individual differences by moving away from groups that offend us, by surrounding ourselves with people of like mind. Likewise, we turn our gaze away from our own darker human side, and succeed in this, because there are places we may look that are “outside” the system and our reflections of the self. In a convergent world, as the space “outside” diminishes, we shall find this harder and harder to do. As a result, like it or not, we shall be forced to deal with paradox, increasingly, on an everyday basis.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

What is a Paradox?

Wikipedia asserts that “A paradox is an apparently true statement or group of statements that leads to a contradiction or a situation which defies intuition.” It goes on to state “Typically, either the statements in question do not really imply the contradiction, the puzzling result is not really a contradiction, or the premises themselves are not all really true or cannot all be true together. The word paradox is often used interchangeably and wrongly with contradiction; but whereas a contradiction asserts its own opposite, many paradoxes do allow for resolution of some kind.” The “whatis.com” dictionary modulates this definition by indicating that “A paradox is a statement or concept that contains conflicting ideas” – hence extending the definition from embracing only statements to also embracing concepts. Etymologically speaking, the word means “beyond thinking”, just as orthodox means “right thinking”. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary also adds the following : “one (as a person, situation, or action) having seemingly contradictory qualities or phases”.

In this blog, it is assumed that paradoxes are not only a property of statements and concepts, but also of being. This is similar to the way paradoxes are expressed in zen koans. Zen koans are statements such as the popular “what is the sound of one hand clapping”, and hence fall within the definition given by Wikipedia, but they are statements that may engender profound reorganization of the self. In this sense, they evoke paradoxes of being.

These definitions highlight both the relationships between paradox, conflict and contradiction, but they are, for the most part, careful to distinguish between them. Hence when we say that in a convergent world, contradictions will co-exist side-by-side, this is not itself a paradox. As indicated by Wikipedia, paradox implies that a form of resolution is possible. This actually provides a framework for defining paradoxes of being : that is, these are contradictions within being that can be resolved.

However, it should also be clear that a paradox is, by its nature, opposed to an orthodoxy. Paradoxes may be resolved, but never in obvious or predictable ways, and certainly not according to tenets of doctrine. Orthodoxy, for the most parts, seeks to exclude contradictions, to develop a consistent argument. What I call here “paradoxy”, then, is an alternative to orthodoxy in terms of suggesting modes of being and action. Rather than right action being determined by committee, it derives from the resolution of paradox, a resolution which, by its very nature, must follow from the source of the paradox itself.

Paradox is heavily used within certain kinds of psychoanalysis, especially Jungian and Freudian approaches. Jung characterizes an archetype as 'irrepresentable'. Archetypal representations, are therefore, within Jung’s thought, “representations of the irrepresentable” . Jung was also fascinated by the presence of paradox within Zen Buddhism, as revealed by the following comment : “Above all I would mention the koans of Zen Buddhism, those sublime paradoxes that light up, as with a flash of lightning, the inscrutable interrelations between ego and self.” (C.G. Jung, On the nature of the psyche, p. 135). Freud’s theories are also rife with the presence of paradoxes – the opposition between the search for pleasure and the personal destructiveness this can lead to, or between the desire for things that are of necessity forbidden by social conventions, are two examples. There is even a variant of psychoanalysis called Paradox Theory, based on the observation that both Freud and Jung recognized the human mind as based on “opposite forces”.

These ideas further emphasize the notion that paradoxes may not always refer to statements or concepts, but also to behaviors and states of being.

Let us now explore how paradoxes differ from orthodoxies, as this will lay the groundwork for understanding where one is going if one is leaving orthodoxy behind. If orthodoxies are determined by committee or convention, and therefore imposed from without the individual, then paradoxes are determined by the inherent nature of things, and imposed from within the individual. For this reason, there is a relatively strong relationship between paradox and personal forms of spirituality, while organized religion is more strongly associated with orthodoxy and doctrine.

These are mutually exclusive, also, because if one is attentive to one’s inner paradoxes, orthodox thinking will be irrelevant, while one adopts orthodox ideas if one does not entirely trust one’s inner resources. As has been indicated earlier, the concept of a paradox implies something that can be resolved, or that can resolve itself. The process by which resolution is achieved, however, will rarely be straightforward, due to the nature of a paradox.

Of course, paradoxes of being and action may also occur at organizational levels, and not only within individuals. In such situations, organizational paradoxes may come into conflict with organizational doctrines.

“Paradox is what makes life interesting.” (Charles Handy, 1994, The Age of Paradox, p. 13.)

Population Growth versus Environmental Activism

After watching Mr. Gore’s important film on global climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, I am struck by the fact that, not only does he mention the fact that the population explosion is braking (this is in the extended DVD addition, perhaps not the original film), he makes little extra mileage out of this fact, except to say that scientists consider this a “success story” and that the huge population in terms of numbers makes our situation unique in human history.

On this latter point, we agree, but not quite for the same reasons. It is my suggestion that, in addition to being unique because the population numbers are close to the sustainable limits of the planet, the dynamics of convergent population growth will have substantial additional impacts that are not yet recognized.

In the extended section, Mr. Gore talks about the “tipping point”, at which moment the environment goes into a self sustaining change that will be much harder to challenge than before the tipping point is achieved. However, others (see, for example, the “universarium project” at http://www.universarium.net/movie.html) use the term “tipping point” to emphasize the moment in time when a new way of thinking and action is achieved, when we humans finally gain the ability to sustain our lives without threatening the environment.

In my earlier blog (“The Demographics of Change”), I noted that humanity has already passed through the critical point in population growth when the dynamics changes. Mr. Gore, and the ecologos institute which is behind the universarium project, believe that the “tipping points”, whether viewed in terms of irreversible loss of control or recovery of a sustainability, are in front of us. I do not disagree with this, but the result is something very interesting. We are currently situated in this rather unique situation between these two moments in time, each of critical importance in the system dynamics unfolding around us. With the crossing of the critical point in population growth, we have entered a new era, but until we also regain a sustainable balance, we are unable to fully realize the potential inherent in that era. We are between the hammer and the anvil, and this unique moment in human history, a kind of moment of suspension, cannot last very long.

I have been careful, in the above paragraph, to avoid saying that the tipping point in front of us corresponds to “recovery of control”. From a systems perspective, the idea that we seek to control the environment is a fallacy. Control is only possible when one is outside the system whose behavior one is attempting to influence, and we are decidedly not outside the planetary ecosystem – trying to control this is part of what has gotten us into trouble in the first place. Seeking sustainability does not mean seeking to recover control, rather it means correcting imbalances that follow from our behavior, to the extent that such correction is possible.

My argument here is not, therefore, that Mr. Gore is wrong, not that correcting the imbalances in climate constituents that we influence must be restricted, on the contrary, we must engage the substantial resources at our disposition to achieve the right kind of “tipping point”. However, it is important to not lose sight of the other dynamics in play, as our actions and the social reorganization we put into play to deal with the one problem, will have consequences for the others. We need to be aware of these issues. If we turn “action against global warming” into a new kind of orthodoxy, and use this orthodoxy to censure people, groups and parts of society, we shall be in serious trouble several years down the line. That is the danger, and just as Mr. Gore makes a compelling case for action on climate change, we must not lose sight of the need to be open to other viewpoints and issues that emerge and may even challenge this movement at times.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

The Demographics of Change

In the previous blog, I presented a portrait of our current societies that emphasized the omnipresence of orthodoxy. It seems slightly presumptuous to claim that we are moving, as a collective, away from the dominance of orthodox beliefs, given such a massive presence of orthodox thinking. On what evidence can such an argument be maintained?

I mentioned several phenomena that do not follow orthodox behaviors, but, with the exception of the internet, these phenomena have been around for hundreds, thousands, even millions of years. They did not prevent the development of huge collections of orthodox thinking before. On what basis can I affirm that they will have such an effect now?

The argument that leads, inevitably from my point of view, to such a conclusion is somewhat complex, but it is rooted in a very simple observation. Throughout most of human history, the population has been in accelerating expansion. Since the first cries of alarm raised in the 1950s, through books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and over the following decades, it has become clear to a large part of the world’s population that we, as a people, as part of a larger ecology, have been headed for serious trouble if this were to continue unchecked. Not only that, it was noted that the “crunch” would come all too quickly, given the fact that the exponential expansion was nearing the limits of the ability of the planet to support it.

The September 2005 edition of Scientific American was devoted to the observation, now confirmed by a growing number of studies, that this situation has changed. Although the rate of expansion has never been larger than now, the global rate is slowing for the first time in human history (with the possible exception of times such as the Great Plague in Middle Age Europe or other major diebacks).

This observation is, itself, somewhat paradoxical. The world’s population is increasingly concerned with the issue of environment change – the consequences of not having acted earlier to stem the impacts of human development on the environment. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that actions taken now will not be enough to prevent dramatic climate change. The statement that the world’s population growth has started to slow seems a small consolation for the developing catastrophe that is our relationship with the environment. It is a relief, perhaps, but no one is suggesting that we drop our guard, in this of all times.

On a second look, the change is not only a relief, but a suggestion that we, as a species, are perhaps finally taking our responsibility towards ourselves and our environment more seriously. If the tendency continues, we are on the road to a situation of sustainability.

It still, however, seems to be only a small blip on our radar screen.

However, as a scientist, I find I cannot accept such a lackadaisical reaction. I believe the consequences of this change in demographics to be profound. I believe this may prove to be the single, most important event to have occurred in recent, perhaps all human history.

Why?

Because the dynamics of a decreasing expansion rate are dramatically different than those of an increasing expansion rate. From a systems perspective, these correspond to entirely different system states. Just as the rapidly increasing expansion rate that characterized the twentieth century fed many different forms of dynamics, and all of these led to a worsening of the prognostics for long term human habitation of the planet, so a decreasing expansion rate entails a change in dynamics for a large number of secondary, but all important, processes. We are no longer in a divergent dyanamics, we are now functioning within a convergent dynamics.

And because we have never, as a species, experienced such a regime while the population is commensurate with the resource limits of the planet, with nowhere else to go. In former times, when life got difficult, or times troubled, one could move to a different place, outside the sphere of influence of the earlier location. This didn’t always solve the problem, but it was always a possibility for individuals or groups, and provided a way of siphoning off some of the sources of conflict and trouble. In our world today, there is nowhere on the planet one can go to, and escape the issues that are facing us. And our will and technologies are not advanced enough, yet, to support movement to other planets, or even to orbital stations.

As a people, as a species, we are in a “crucible”, a “nexus”, a “moment of transition”. The moment when a system changes from accelerating expansion, to braking expansion, is called the “critical point”. It is hard to observe, because the change is small and the expansion rate is high. But the system operates after the critical point in a way that is fundamentally different from how it operated before the critical point.

Humanity appears to have passed through its critical point, without hardly noticing it has done so. Human life, from here on in, will be different from what it has been. It will take time for the differences to manifest in a way that becomes obvious, but the change is no less profound for being invisible to us.

Moving Away From Orthodoxy - A Portrait of Our Times

eWe live in a world where the official discourses are highly orthodox, but where the underlying and emerging realities are increasingly less orthodox.

The word “orthodoxy” derives etymologically from the roots “ortho” and “doxa”, Greek words meaning “right” or “correct”, and “thought”, “teaching” or “glorification”. Its formal definition is given as “correct theological or doctrinal observance of religion as determined by some overseeing body” (wikipedia). A common definition is, on the other hand, “a belief or orientation agreeing with conventional standards”. Hence there are two distinct ideas here, one that orthodoxy is determined by a committee, and the other by convention.

We can find many, many examples of both these forms of orthodoxy within our current society. Hence most religions, sects, and so forth are orthodox in the first of these senses. The Political Correctness movement, often called, simply, PC, resulted in the promotion of an orthodoxy of the second kind. The feminist movement, one of the driving forces behind the PC campaign, itself struggles with the issues of orthodoxy – not all feminists are in agreement over its necessity within the broader movement, indeed, some believe that “orthodoxy” is a tool if not invented by men, then certainly wielded by them to keep people (e.g. women) in line.

Another example of orthodoxy is the existence of political parties within our democratic institutions. Political parties are often characterized by both forms of orthodoxy, both a doctrine decided upon by a small committee that applies to all “card-carrying members”, and conventions that may apply to a much broader group within the voting public. As a result, our governments are generally based on orthodox doctrines. In the case of dictatorships, this is likely to be even more the case, although the determining group may be a committee of one.

The institution of scientific research follows an orthodoxy, albeit a somewhat heterogeneous one. Scientific doctrine is vetted not by a single committee, but by many committees, however, the overall goal of these committees is very similar, and very much devoted towards “right thinking”. The funding of science is also an exercise in orthodoxy, as is, somewhat paradoxically, the funding of art. Art is not in and of itself an orthodox practice (well, not so-called “high art” – it can be argued that popular art does follow a form of orthodoxy, since it is heavily constrained by conventions). Educational institutions follow orthodoxies, as do medical institutions. Professions, in general, are based on some form of doctrine and hence are orthodox.

The list gets longer… it might be tempting to say that all aspects of our culture are dealt with through various forms of orthodoxy. However, it is easy to point to other constituents of society that are not orthodox. Much of the economy evades determined attempts by governments and others to establish an orthodox and controlling doctrine. The internet in its totality escapes all attempts to impose a single doctrine. Our individual psyches do not follow doctrine, even though many would like that to be the case, or attempt to convince themselves that it can be done.

All three of these are examples of what are called emergent phenomena – that is, phenomena which are characterized by global patterns that are not directly determined, but rather emerge from more local phenomena that may be pre-determined. This is an important point, it allows me to restate my central idea in a somewhat different way. The social arrangements into which we are moving are emergent phenomena, different from the determinations at smaller scales that lead to them. The 21st century world is an emergent culture, and, as such, cannot be understood in terms of orthodoxy.

It is my claim that, despite the apparent omnipresence and ubiquitous nature of orthodoxy throughout our current social fabric, that we are moving into an era where orthodoxy will have far less of a hold than it has in previous centuries.

Furthermore, the very existence of paroxysms of violence based on orthodox religion in various forms that we are experiencing on the world stage presently, reinforces my argument. Orthodoxies in today’s world feel threatened – the violence we see is at least partially a consequence of that sense of change that is installing itself in many levels within our social and economic arrangements.

Introduction to 21st Century Musings

It is my belief, and in these virtual pages I am planning to present the complex jigsaw puzzle that constitutes this belief, that we, humanity as a whole, are entering a new era which will have substantially different forms that those we have become accustomed to, over many centuries. The fundamental change I propose to explore is a shift from a social, economic and personal preoccupation with orthodoxy and orthodox thinking, towards modes of being, thinking and acting that are much more paradoxical.

This belief is not, however, “pulled from a hat” - it is based on broad exposure to a variety of different disciplines, thinkers … and contexts of everyday life, along with a lifetime effort to bring together disparate modes of being. I am also aware that my position is “radical”. I am going to argue that, unlike the argument that suggests there is “nothing new under the sun”, that on the contrary, the nature of what it is to be human is changing.

Although I am a scientist, my argument is not primarily technological. I am not making any claims that what it means to be human is changing because of the introduction and use of new technologies, whether these be physical, biological, informational, or something else. In this regard, I present an argument that differs from a great many of my colleagues.

Although my arguments are convergent with those of a growing number of key thinkers today, and are rooted in contributions from giants of the past, I believe many of the details within my arguments will surprise many. They have taken me into nooks and crannies I did not expect to go to myself, sometimes highly controversial areas of discourse. Over the course of the adventure, I expect to talk about a great many subjects, many of them taboo in one way or another. Indeed, I expect to get into trouble with some readers because of this. I believe that as part of a “great airing” that needs to take place, of issues, possible actions, dreams and nightmares, we need to take the “kid gloves” off with regard to issues we’re all afraid to talk about openly. We need to name the things that disturb us, call them forth into the open, give ourselves the space to say things, even in writing, that are controversial and, sometimes, counterintuitive.

I know I am being a little mysterious about this right now, but all in due time. First of all, we need to lay down some foundations before we can begin to talk about such things.

A word about writing style. This blog is being developed from an unpublished book manuscript I wrote last year, but I am rewriting and adapting the manuscript to suit a blog format as I go. I believe the blog format is ideally suited to this kind of exposition. Indeed, part of the argument I want to make is that these issues need to be taken up by a much broader community – these issues concern us all. The process of writing a manuscript and publishing this as a book has stood us in good stead for more than 500 years, but the internet today provides a different approach that can be much more effective. I hope to take advantage of what has been called “collective intelligence” to broaden and deepen my own understanding of these issues.

I also expect to include more informal musings about events in the world as they unfold, in relation to these arguments, as well as discussions regarding any responses readers may be prepared to provide, as these become appropriate.

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