How Do We Know When We’ve Reached the Limit?

Let me know if you see any signs or symptoms of reaching a threshold capacity for managing complexity, disruption, chaos, uncertainty, etc.. Network effects predicts a continuing acceleration of civil complexity and chaos.

Psychologists and anthropologists say the human brain has a cognitive surplus. But surely there is a tipping-point at which the way we use our brains falls behind the growth rate of shared public information and knowledge. Our dashboards run out of space for monitoring what’s going on.

But maybe we deceive ourselves in the same way we think we are successfully multi-tasking while clinical studies show that we actually fail at it. Yes, when disrupted from tasks male IQs can drop by 15 points, women – 10 points! And it can take up to 20 minutes to get back into task after being distracted.

Do we know how much we have forgotten in order to make room for new information? Studies show most people think they have above average IQ (think about it). Its easy to fool oneself – what’s your objective baseline?

Are we being systematically trained by our frantic lifestyle (not evil genius) to constrain our thinking into tight patterns? Maybe we are losing ability to be reflective or to consider broad and long lasting implications of our actions.

How do we know if we are successfully adapting to the accelerating pace of disruptive technologies? Its not like we have traditional benchmarks.

I want to know what you think. We stopped talking about information overload long ago. Are we getting worn down by change fatigue? Choice fatigue? Are we slowing acclimatizing to a state of confusion and disengagement? Is it unfashionable to ask these questions? Uncool?

Shall we pretend there is no dancing elephant in our cyberspace?

I need to know!

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Living My Father’s Stories

It was on my 20th birthday in 1975 that my father unexpectedly asked me what I wanted to do with him for the day.  “I’m yours”, he said with a big grin.  This was highly irregular for my father, whom I shared with my four brothers, to make himself available exclusively to any of us for a whole day.  “Wow!” I said eagerly, “anything?”  My heart was pounding.   I instantly knew there was only one answer, a canoe trip to the big Hay Point.

Hay Point was an enormous, mysterious and wild place I had only known through my father’s stories.  It was more than a thousand acres of marshland on the southwest shores of St. Joseph Island in Lake Huron, not far from old Fort St. Joe.  You can’t drive there and its really too far and rugged for a walk.

Mom’s and Dad’s romantic stories of an earlier time always struck a chord with me since they had moved us to nearby Sault Ste Marie when I was just a toddler.  They knew a different world.  My childhood saw the country-side on the family’s weekend nature walks, spotting lady-slippers and picking morels.  The canoe was a recent addition to the family. Today would be a double treat, a canoe adventure and to set foot on the great untouched wild marshlands I had never seen.

War of 1812 at Ft St. Joseph, Reenactment in 2012

Dad’s invitation was particularly unexpected since I was back home for the summer from university and he was rather unsure about the whole idea of advanced education.  I was the first in my extended family to go to university and Dad had preferred that I follow in his footsteps and learn a trade.  That was something he knew about. It was Mom who encouraged me to go for the education.  It was a kind of leap of blind faith on her part that maybe something magically would happen and I would either become some kind of professional or just find the meaning in life that I was so desperately seeking.

But on this happy birthday I took the bait and didn’t give Dad a chance to change his mind.  We packed a lunch, threw the canoe in the back of the pickup and headed off for Hay Point.

Dad talked about Hay Point many times over the years.  In the Dirty Thirties he and his brother Roy used to go there to hunt geese each fall to supplement the sparse farm harvest.  “There were thousands of geese as far as the eye could see, and they made a heck of a racket,” he would say.  “When they flew together they made the sky go dark.”

The family had also gone there to harvest the marsh hay when the farm’s hay fields were so dry they wouldn’t produce any hay worth cutting.  On the farm the livestock had to eat, so Dad and Uncle Roy took the team of horses with the hay mower along the miles of shore line to the marsh.  The grass was tall, over their heads in fact, and even though it was a tough grass for the livestock, it was better than none at all.

Fur Trade  Period Freight Canoe

Dad also told us about the time he and Roy decided to take a canoe to join a group of locals at Old Fort St. Joe for a Dominion Day (July 1st) celebration.  Fort St. Joseph was the most westerly British fort during the War of 1812. It was eventually burnt to the ground, but as a young man, Dad was active in promoting the stabilization and preservation of the historic site.

When Dad and Roy got out on the lake the swells began to rise four feet, five feet, and then six feet high!   People gathered on the shore and watched with baited breathe as the two in the canoe appeared and disappeared from sight with each heave and dip of the white caps.  They wondered where the canoe would come up next, or if it would come up at all!

We were lucky this morning of my 20th birthday.  The August sky was clear and bright, the water calm and warm.  Here I was in the bow of the canoe with Dad in the stern.  I was a novice but Dad was an old hand on the water.  His father had been a commercial fisherman on the Great Lakes until the Smelts (fresh water Herring) invaded in the Depression years and ruined the commercial fishery.  Dad knew everything about the water.

We easily paddled with a gentle breeze on our backs from the launch at end of the “A” Line to the north end of Hay Point.  We shared the channel of the St. Mary’s River with great ships from as far away as China and Russia, though we stayed closer to shore and the freighters stayed close to the centre of the channel in the deepest water. I could see the long shore of the marsh off in the distance but it was quite a while before we got close.

1405110221As we approached Hay Point, we manoeuvred the canoe up a small quiet stream that turned into a beaver canal.   When we were able to step ashore I found myself surrounded by the tall Grass that lined the banks.

This being mid-summer, there were no migrating geese to be heard, but there were Mallard Ducks, Red-Winged Blackbirds and other marshlanders calling near and far.  From an old mound of grass I was able to glimpse the vast territory of pristine wilds.  I could imagine those thousands of honking geese, and maybe a nearby browsing moose.  This was the story land world of my father’s youth! My eyes and my imagination were filled with the vast wildness of the wetland space.

Same canoe 40 years later

When it was time to go, we turned the canoe back to the lake.  It didn’t take long before we realised the waters had changed.  It wasn’t the wind, but the rising swells.  I was again in the bow as the waves crashed against the front corner and soaked me.  The water splashed high in the air catching sunshine and sparkling!  The canoe dipped and tossed in, at first, three foot swells, then four.  It was the most exhilarating roller coaster ride I could imagine!  I felt perfectly safe, though, despite the depth of water beneath us and the fact that I couldn’t swim very well.  The life preserver and Dad were all I needed.

I paddled hard while Dad both paddled and steered straight into the waves. If he had not kept us square to the waves we probably would have been swamped! Crash, came the waves. Crash, and crash again!  Each crash quickly vaulted the bow high and then dropped us back down into the trough where we crashed again.

The spray over the bow was wet and warm and I laughed from the bottom of my stomach. Dad, normally a fairly quiet stoic man, was grinning ear to ear and had to let out a few hearty laughs now and again.  I imagined, had there been some people on shore, if maybe they would wonder where we would reappear after each dip, or if at all.

Russell Adcock, 1917 to 2007

It was, I would later learn in psychology class, a peak experience. I was totally engulfed in the moment of ecstasy, one with my Dad, one with nature, one with myself.

When we got back to the “A” Line, and heaved the canoe back into the pickup, I knew that I might never again feel such total joy to the core of my soul.  And I remember this special day now that my Dad, Russell Adcock, is gone.  He and this memory will always be with me.  He educated me on the important lessons of life, on history, in nature, first hand.

 

PS

The last time I saw him, I knew it would be my last. That was in late February 2007. I was visiting from far away Edmonton, Alberta. My brother Grant drove me and our Mom to visit Dad at the extended care facility in Sault Ste Marie.  Dad was then living with a form of terminal Parkinson’s disease with advanced dementia. As we turned the the final corner for the last stretch of road, I braced myself, and then this song came on the radio – In The Living Years, by Mike and the Mechanics!

I was in deep trouble. Of all the songs in the world to be playing at this precise moment! It could not possibly be just chance. It was a sign, a signal to prepare! The song ended at the exact moment Grant pulled into the parking stall at the facility. It was a long moment before I was ready to go in, knowing it would be my last visit. But we went in for that painful final visit. As I was leaving, and there was no one left in the room but me and Dad, I leaned over, choked up, hugged him and told him, “I love you, Dad“.

My Dad, Russell Adcock, died April 22, 2007. He sails now to his heart’s content.

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A Methodical Approach to Designing our World for Life with AI

One of the biggest questions facing the 21st Century civilization is “how are we going to manage the escalating automation of our world so we continue to live safe, prosperous, and fulfilling lives?”

In general, naturally, we are going to manage intelligence with intelligence. The intelligence we are going to use will be some combination of personal (cognitive and emotional), social or collective, and artificial intelligence. Of course it all derives from natural intelligence, something we see every day in such things as fractals in plant leaves and blood vessels, or in the balance of species in an ecosystem. Think of AI as a new species arriving in our civil ecosystem we call civilization. How do we accommodate and use it for our highest purposes rather than compete with it?Artificial intelligence making possible new computer technologie

We struggle with other seemingly insurmountable issues such as climate change, the growing gap between the super-rich and everyone else, the concentration of corporate control, and the polarization of political, ethnic and religious populations. In this context the continued penetration of AI into our lives becomes more challenging. AI can be a spoiler in the hands of those who acquire it first.

We need not examine in detail all the various approaches and applications to artificial intelligence, such as robotics, neural networks, deep (machine) learning, forged labour or synthetic intelligence. Many AI professionals like to make sharp distinctions, but for those of us who are going to have our job descriptions radically altered, have our security seriously challenged, and maybe get attacked by smart weapons, maybe its all the same stuff. There are opportunities and threats for all of us on many fronts. We each and all need to be strategic, individually and collectively.

One thing is for sure, as far as I am concerned. We need to think big, long and hard about how our world is systematically migrating to a different platform as we live and breathe. The AI professionals have told us for years, “don’t worry, AI won’t be around to bother you in your lifetime“. Others have been hitting the hype buttons. Meanwhile, most AI professionals have been sprinting a marathon in hopes of getting in on the one breakthrough that is the real game-changer.

Now many of them are telling us that significant breakthroughs could happen in the next five to ten years. And the common public response is, “we’ve heard that nonsense before“. Someone cried ‘wolf’ one too many times. Meanwhile, robots continue to infiltrate the manufacturing lines and now the service lines. Algorithms chase down meaningful patterns in millions of data points. Watson out-smarts our greatest knowledge keepers, and a robot actually passes a college entrance exam. And, yes, one AI system can read the expressions in human faces better than many people can.

Public policy is notoriously reactionary and delayed. While our governments are a nerve centre for our nations, they are not well prepared to anticipate emerging needs and lead discussion and action. They react to lobbyists, disasters and voters at election time. There is nothing stopping ordinary concerned citizens from becoming informed , holding their own discussions and coming up with their own plans and policy positions.

Papers-are-passed-webWe will need to structure the public dialogue to deal with complex issues such as the impacts of AI on modern civil systems (society, economy, culture, and politics). We have had many brainstorming tools in practice for longer than my lifetime.

More recently we have seen growing popularity of approaches such as systems and design thinking, strategic foresight, behavioural insights and predictive analytics. We can start with a simple SWOT analysis, and look at the emerging Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Let’s put these smart methods to good use. As we begin a local conversation we can exchange our best ideas and methods and learn how to make progress against this impending behemoth of change. Then scale up.

With wise use of artificial, cultural, collective and personal intelligence we may soon be able to co-ordinate efforts around the world to develop a shared vision of what we want to be when we grow up. I suggest we start using smart methods now.

_______

To register for the Rising Stars Symposium workshop on Designing Our World for Life with AI September 26th in Edmonton go to:

http://www.abctech.ca/

Further Reading: For further reading on the actual and potential civil impacts of AI:

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Community as Natural Intelligence

 

People in suitsWhen we individuals have difficulty managing the complex challenges around us, we have always turned to collective and organizational intelligence for assistance. It’s as ancient as we are. We call it community. And when life seems so busy that we want to retreat from community, we need to reinvent community so it continues to work for us. No one finds his own way without help from others. The collective does not find its way without individual leadership and initiative. We are all wayfinders together.

Authentic Community

Scott Peck, the famous author of The Road Less Travelled and A Different Drum, said if you have ever experienced ‘authentic community’, you will continue to seek it out and recreate it wherever you go — for the rest of your life!

Sadly, many people today feel something is missing. Something bigger than themselves. They don’t know that the human heart has a vacuum in it the size and shape of community. It needs to be filled. Community is something that nature has given to us social animals as a birthright.

The authentic community fills that inner void. It provides a sense of belonging, identity, loyalty, security and shared purpose – things maybe you didn’t know were missing until you find them. It is an experience that transcends personal differences, and not only tolerates, but embraces and puts our differences to good use for the good of the whole. We are all different for good biological reasons. Our personal strengths were meant to be shared. That’s a higher order natural intelligence at work!

Healthy Community

Healthy communities do not segregate themselves but are open and engaging, adaptive and even innovative. They seek to grow and develop appropriately to serve the needs of their members. Healthy communities get good at helping their members find their best strengths and place in the bigger picture. They draw out that natural talent, nurture it and support it for the common good.

Collective Intelligence

Community intelligence is related to what is now called collective intelligence and crowd-sourced wisdom. In the early days of the scientific revolution kings offered prizes for the best scientific proposals.  Collective intelligence is not new but it’s being rediscovered and modified for the 21st century. One person in a million may have a solution to a problem. Now, if that inventor wants to share it, we can all benefit from that solution. If the inventor can protect the intellectual property then he or she can charge for it and make a profit. The inventor may alternatively choose to make a free contribution to the sharing economy.

business peopleOrganizational Intelligence

But while collective intelligence draws on the talents of many individuals, this by itself does not produce new ideas or solutions. Another important aspect of community intelligence is what organizational behaviour theorists are now calling organizational learning, and organizational or collaborative intelligence.  This is not your grandad’s staff training. It’s about optimizing patterns of communication and control in the organization to maximize organizational performance. In any well-managed dialogue, committee or work group, for example, new ideas emerge that no individual member could have come up with on their own. In poorly managed or dysfunctional teams, the output group IQ could actually be lower than that of any member.

Community intelligence has what chaos theorists call emergent properties. The parts, together in particular relationships, produce new properties that do not exist in the parts themselves and usually would not be predicted. Others call it synergy, in which the intelligence of the whole community is greater than the sum of the members’ intelligence. Whatever you call it, the phenomenon is ubiquitous throughout nature but is only recently being recognized, studied and understood. The patterns of relationships among the members of a community add significant value that serves each member.

Businessman Pointing to Our Services SignCommunity intelligence building is a key purpose behind the new social enterprise, Wayfinders Business Co-operative. It’s not just about business, but about how we all work together organically in an ecosystem of trusted intellectual and economic transactions. Wayfinders incorporates both collective and collaborative intelligence, guided, of course, by human values.

Balancing the Self-Other Orientation

Nature has given us the genes to work both as individuals and as groups or communities. Each of us has some natural disposition for one end or the other of the spectrum — self or other. People are asked to ‘carry their own weight‘ but also to ‘serve others‘. Most people find a balance somewhere between the extremes. Using statistics you can see that there is a ‘bell-curve’ normal distribution of people along the continuum, with extreme loners at one end and extremely gregarious at the other end. Most find a balance somewhere in the middle.

bell curve

Normal distribution of self-other orientation and locus of control

Neither end of the spectrum is solely correct, but both poles will surround themselves with people who feel the way they do. Like attracts like. People at both ends will develop worldviews shared among those with similar sentiments. Over time, we see ideologies emerge which solidify the polarities and bring out our sense of competitive tribal allegiances and territorialism.

When a natural neighbourhood has no sense of community, communities of interest come in to fill the void and play a bigger role in your life. That may mean membership is no longer as open, diverse or inclusive. They can become closed to outsiders. Religious orders, political ideologies, scientific disciplines, and intellectual camps can progressively become disengaged from the general population, displacing the organic community and thereby restricting community intelligence.

Some will say the adversarial polarity of politics is good for shaking out the issues. However, under competitive pressure to win the popular vote, people find more reassurance in their tribal alliances than they do in seeking facts, logic, truth or the ultimate welfare of the community as a whole.

You can see the evolution of party politics since the beginning of the British parliamentary democracy. But on a bigger scale you can contrast western liberalism that favours the individual and eastern collectivism that favours the whole. Within boundaries, both civilizations can survive and thrive. But there are limits and tipping points at which civil stability is threatened.

Personally, I favour an overall balance as I believe nature intended. I think it is not only possible to reconcile left and right, but it is imperative. The strengths of the individual and the strengths of community intelligence need each other. The work of sociobiology supports this position. There are mathematical algorithms that describe social interdependence in many other species as well as our own. I believe we should use management science to optimize the balancing of competing priorities in our civil systems.

Management Science

The challenge is to assume conscious, deliberate and rational control of our civil guidance system. No one wants to have someone else do ‘social engineering’ on us. We need to develop a new platform with good ‘organizational DNA‘ and values aligned with basic human needs. The platform would promote active member engagement, hence, a cooperative governance model is proposed. Each member gets one voting share. Each member is educated in the co-operative and management science principles.

Whether anyone is aware of it or not I cannot say, but there has been progress over the past few decades that holds the key to our personal and common futures. The key lies in the domain of those sciences variously called information theory, systems theory, cybernetics, operations research, chaos theory, decision theory, complex adaptive systems, AI, and so on. I prefer the term ‘management science‘ for convenience. To me every living thing is managing its life. That’s what we all do with our intelligence.

Words-business-intelligence-written-on-a-book.-Business-concept-000075279587_MediumEssentially this cluster of related sciences is evolving a unified explanation to encompass all life and intelligence. Management science finds ways to optimize performance or production lines, business processes and organizations of all kinds. It results in giant economies of scale in mass production, for example, so you can buy goods for cheaper. It can also be used to assist less formal organizations such as communities. If we prefer to think of communities as natural and organic, then we can refer to optimized communities as intentional communities.

Cultural Lag

Again, call them what you may, but we have a cumulative cultural deficit or growing cultural lag across our global monoculture. This is manifest differently in many quarters. The advances of technology leave advances in politics, family and community in the dust. As biological organisms, we pay more attention to tangible things than abstract or invisible things. We can adopt electronics faster than we can change religions. We quickly introduce cars and cell phones, then we take years to effectively regulate them.

In other words, our civil systems are not carefully optimized. The soft culture of values and beliefs is becoming the important critical path on the journey we call progress. Soft culture is the aspect of community and civilization that slows everything down or even disrupts technology. This soft culture needs a paradigm shift to catch up. In order to do this, the social sciences and psychology need to be firmly placed on the management science platform.

Civil and Psych Science

Our 200-year-old legacy social science has been largely marginalized. There is little money to incentivize serious civil research and development beyond academic exercises. Political animals, entrenched in legacy ideologies, often pay little attention to independent research on sociocultural matters. They generally believe they have the truth in their ideologies and party platforms. Much of the useful progress has come from organizational theory that emerges from management practice.

Businessmen And Businesswomen Meeting To Discuss IdeasPsychology is refining us. Advances in psychology are among the most profound of all advances in the last 150 years. But this kind of progress plays too close to the human heart, and at heart, we are creatures of habit, not inclined to change behaviours until we have to. So while we have a better appreciation of mental health, there is a growing concern over mental illness. Meanwhile, there are probably a lot more psychologists in the marketing and sales industry than there are in clinical research and practice.

Part of the problem of the various social sciences and psychology lies in the fact that each has evolved into their own separate disciplines. But reality is not disciplinary. Management science, on the contrary, views the real world as made up of tightly integrated and embedded systems. This is a far more realistic worldview.

Governments are known to be reactionary, rarely getting ahead of public opinion. Public opinion is also lagging well behind the futurists and thought leaders. The best thought leaders have been quite surprised by many recent events on the global stage. We need to understand that with the very unpredictable nature of our current human condition, we must get back to some basics while we are capable of being rational and thoughtful.

Wayfinding

Can we afford to allow a generation of our human family to wander off course amidst the dizzying accelerating rates of change, exponential growth of civil complexity and compounding chaos? As people cope with the mounting pressures and distractions they will inevitably disengage and lean on more primitive tribal instincts for protection.

People in a Meeting and Leadership Concept

Wayfinders at Work = Community Intelligence

We need to reconsider many of our legacy worldviews, sort through the best ideas, methods and tools available to us today, and incorporate them into a new paradigm platform.  So that is what we ate doing at Wayfinders Business Co-operative© and it’s in an early startup stage.

As Wayfinders Business Cooperative sets out to bring forward the best in humanity, the best of our intellectual and technological heritage, we need to be smart about the new synthesis of these traditions, and be conscientious about where we are heading. We need to draw on management science and practice to develop the best science and practice in community intelligence.

Moreover, we must be cognizant of the fact that with each decision we make we add to the definition of humanity. We must find a way to remain true to our most positive nature while navigating an evermore complex global civilization.

 

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Cultural Intelligence – A Toastmaster Perspective

I came across this article (linked below) in the Toastmasters international magazine and thought I should share it. I believe we can gain better insights into personal and shared worldviews by studying the worldviews from other cultures. This awareness and wisdom then enables us to better understand people of all kinds of backgrounds, including personality types, different genders, sexual orientations, professional disciplines, political ideologies, socio-economic classes, languages and religions.Understanding and appreciating different cultures is a gold mine waiting to be tapped. Few people who have not experienced life in two different cultures really get it.  Visiting a foreign country as a tourist is only a brief wake up call. I fear that some people who have lived in two cultures feel that they are disadvantaged and down-play the true value of a multicultural perspective. I want to tap into their life experiences and garner the wealth that lies within so I can be richer, smarter and more adept.

Walk in someone else’s dance feet View full-size Download

Civilization is an ongoing experiment and if we can cross-fertilize our worldviews, we all benefit. Compare and contrast the lessons learned, rolled up and brought forward over the centuries around the globe. Explore the similarities and differences. I see this as a way to getting closer to the truth and goodness that lie beneath culture and personal experience.

No one has a monopoly on truth!

Moreover, how are we going to make progress as a species unless we learn how to share, harmonize and build on our worldviews rather than entrench and defend our values and beliefs? There is a learning curve in acquiring the skill, but, like any other learning, we can get better at it , get good at it, even master it.
“A survey conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that 90 percent of leading executives from 68 countries identified cross-cultural leadership as the top management challenge for the next century. Cultural intelligence is no longer just a “nice-to-have” skill set; it’s become a critical capability for leading in the 21st century world.”
See more…

Source: https://www.toastmasters.org/~/media/99B0116586F5404FBD271D4369E4DD6C.ashx

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Make Empathy and Peace Go Viral

Dear Diary:

You know I often come to you to help me reflect on world events when no one wants to attend for more than a line or two and a funny picture. This time I wonder about things that go viral. Some people say that people are stacked ten deep like cord-wood on this little planet. Only in the past 25 years, with the advent of the global web, have we begun to get a sense of what that really means.
There aren’t just pictures of starving kids, or the beautiful Taj Mahal, or six o’clock news reel of a great speech by Nelson Mandela. We can actually interact more or less in real time with ordinary people around the planet — 24/7. And for more people now, this virtual reality is almost as real as life gets.
We see postings on social media and comments on articles, from people we know and don’t know, about events they have seen in person and events they just comment on.
We are highly connected with these people even if we are not connected in the same way we connect with loved-ones, or with nature when we walk in the woods. But as social animals we are inclined to take what people say rather seriously. We have seen many things go viral on the web, things like kitty pics, stupid things celebrities say and do, and amazing stories of human survival.
What else can go viral? Human feelings. Anger, fear, suspicion, depression, hatred, or the desire for revenge. All these can go viral faster than trust, hope, love, or compassion. This is why we don’t cry ‘FIRE’ in a crowded theatre. Bad news travels fast. Does patience ever go viral? This is asymmetrical warfare against our darker side.
The alarm call is pervasive throughout all social animal species. Even social insects like ants and bees when attacked use pheromones to call for backup. Tribal humans use a war drum and a war dance. Today it’s the social media rant. And we respond by liking and sharing. Collectively we send signals that go viral along with the feelings they impart. And the lines form between factions. Where is mediation for the masses?

In physics we know that is is easier to destroy order than to create it. A string of dominoes goes up in an hour and goes down in seconds. We see in the study of collapsed civilizations that what took hundreds or thousands of years to construct can come down without so much as a single historian around to record what just happened. Gone! Scattered!
In North America we have lived rather comfortably for many decades, with some trepidation regarding the nuclear cold war (if you’re old enough to remember), but little in the manner of a clear and present danger. Though minorities of all kinds have felt the sting of systemic injustice, we have not seen the angry face of ethnic cleansing, genocide or military coups. We have been sheltered from the intimate knowledge of what truly horrific and inhuman things humans are capable of doing to one another.

Many among us deny the darkness within us all and will deny the threats. Others will say we must suppress this rage on all sides. But we don’t know when we will collectively reach a critical threshold of pressures, a tipping point when someone draws a line in the sand and another steps over it in defiance.

Other people have faith in a natural system of checks and balance, a self-correcting mechanism in society. But what are the natural limits of this self-correction? On what scale does it operate? Perhaps the pendulum has to swing quite far before it turns back on its path. And in its sweep there may be many casualties. Mother Nature holds no favorites.

Diary, we need a way to make good things go viral and we need to start this now.

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A Short HIstory of a Complex Civilization

Birth of A Complex Global Civilization | My grandfather, Ben Garside, died in 1970 when I was 15 years old. Born in 1880, he had lived nearly his entire life in one house or another with no insulation, no furnace, no phone, no electricity or running water. He was a farmer-turned-market-gardener. He didn’t see an automobile until he was over 35 years of age, yet he lived long enough to see astronauts land on the moon. He taught me one important thing – that it is possible to live with very little, as our ancestors did for thousands of years, and find genuine happiness. How did things change so quickly in one lifetime?

Direction choices and career decisions with a businessman standing in the center of a group of radial roads going in different paths as a business metaphor for government bureaucracy guidance and deciding on the best way towards success.

Choice Fatigue

New Energy | Around the time my grandfather was born, there was a flurry of inventions based on the cheap new energies of fossil fuels and electricity. My grandfather’s uncle worked with Nicola Telsa on the first power generating station at Niagara. My wife’s great-great uncle Melville Bissell came up with the Bissell electric vacuum cleaner. The telephone was quickly invented and you could then talk to relatives in a distant city rather than travel by horse. Oil was discovered, pumped out of the ground and put to use in diesel engines in trains and ships. Cheap shipping made the world a much smaller place.

Literacy | Aside from the abundant cheap energy there was something else even more catalytic to the perfect storm of 20th century progress. Just a couple of decades before Ben’s birth there was a popular movement to provide a general education for all children. In the back woods of St. Joseph Island in Lake Huron, Ben was going to get to read and write. I have a copy of the same primer from which he learned to read. He would be able to read newspapers and magazines and keep informed of events and trends across the country and around the world. But more than learning information, schools taught us how to make meanings by deliberately connecting events and processes into a myriad of repeating recognizable patterns.

Modernity | In 1921, American sociologist named William Ogburn coined the term ‘cultural lag’. Cultural lag captured the idea that hard technologies, like ploughs, guns and automobiles, can be adopted at a much faster rate than the values, beliefs and behaviours associated with the use of those technologies. Today, for example, we have billions of smart phones in use and thousands of people will die (or kill) in traffic accidents when using them while driving. These lags don’t close before new ones are added. The lags are often cumulative.

New Foundations | My graduate thesis advisor, Richard Jung, worked with Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the founder of general systems theory. Von Bertalanffy was one of a handful of scientific geniuses giving birth to the esoteric sciences of information theory, operations research, systems theory and cybernetics beginning a decade before I was born. These sciences would not only give rise to the computer, but to the artificial intelligence that promises to one day soon make humans irrelevant. They also form the foundation for the management science that makes global corporations possible. These same sciences help explain life itself so we can manipulate it in genetic engineering and even make new synthetic life forms. They may yet help us simplify our world and save ourselves, but for now, few people know anything at all about the long term cultural lags associated with the science and technology boom.

Back to the Future | The year my grandfather died, American journalist Alvin Toffler published his book called ‘Future Shock’. In it he chronicled the rapid expansion of complexity in the modern world. Toffler stated that there was as much diversity and change in the current lifetime as there was in the previous 800 lifetimes put together. And he was right! Not only are there more things but there are more people, more ideas, travel, publications, and relationships. Knowledge was and is expanding exponentially in every direction! In 1920, just one long lifetime ago, atoms were just a theory and there was only a handful of known galaxies. We now know about sub-atomic particles smaller than quarks, that there are thousands of identifiable planets, and billions of galaxies filled with billions of solar systems. We may already be suffering from future shock and not even know it!

Small Planet | Cheap transportation, electrical appliances, public education and mass communication brought us globalisation. Globalisation quickly brought us closer together than ever. There is a global brain drain going on as people with credentials move to specialized industrial ‘gravitational poles’ around the planet. People gather in giant metropolises — innovation hubs. Moreover, there is growing exposure to variety, diversity and complexity in everything from sciences and occupations, to races, religions, cultures, education, entertainment and political views. We really don’t know how long it takes for people to effectively acclimatize to these changes. We shouldn’t be surprised by popular upheavals.

Zeitgeist | There is now a pervasive general background uncertainty and anxiety. Long term investment planning is evermore challenging. Alleged facts and logical arguments do not validate hopes. We don’t know which scientists to believe. Political pundits argue with different sets of facts. Meanings are apparently so complex and interdependent that anyone can spin them to get whatever results they want. Lies are easily disguised as someone’s truth. People search the workplace, lifestyles and other religions for a sense of meaning and purpose. We don’t get better at multitasking, we get better at being distracted. We feel busy, but in a moment of reflection we realise we’re spinning our wheels and going nowhere. There is little time to analyse and deliberate so people more frequently depend on quick intuitive assessments. Less time spent in deliberation means deliberation skills get weaker.

Media | What people really know is how they feel day in and day out. TV showcases the lives of the rich and famous. “Why not me?” The psychological reactions to cumulative stresses are feelings of powerlessness, frustration, envy, anger, fear, suspicion, anxiety and depression. People talk of information overload, change fatigue, choice fatigue, apathy and disengagement. There is nostalgia for the past when times were simpler and you knew who you could trust. Conspiracy theories and post-apocalyptic dystopias are popular entertainment. Now “get off the grid, prep and hunker down.”

Planetary Paradoxes | Though apparently history repeats itself, we also live in unprecedented times. The familiar rhythms of life are becoming chaotic and unrecognizable. Aside from climate change, the death of the oceans, extinction of many species, and over-population, what else is happening that we have not yet even identified? Scientists are calling our times the Anthropocene Period because of the dramatic impact our population is having on the planet. Never in 3.6 billion years of life on the planet has there been anything like what we humans are doing in this lifetime.

Change Fatigue

Change Fatigue

21st Century Design | Underlying all that is happening in our global mono-culture and its proliferating sub-cultures is the compounded exponential growth of complexity, accelerating change, and convergence of multiple cumulative cultural lags. Cultural ideas and their expression in technology, not genes, are the medium of civil evolution. They’re not slowed by the need for hundreds of generations. What systems science tells us is that this growth pattern, with mathematical certainty, will come to an end one way or another. This is not my grandfather’s world!

Going Forward | With the web we have an unprecedented opportunity to engage in collective discussion. We had better put our little heads together now and figure out what we want to be when we grow up, and how we’re going to get there. How shall we define humanity in the 21st Century?

– Randal B Adcock © 2016

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