My Honest Opinion
Okay, this is the way it goes. I’m not going to hold back. This is my bold honest opinion about what needs to happen very soon. Its both scary and hopeful. Sure, we need to keep calm. We need a sense of humour. We need empathy, compassion, and obedience to the rule of law. We need the comforts of familiarity. And we need to make sense of our chaotic world.
April 1, 2020 we gradually wake up in a nightmare as we learn about the dominoes going down around the world. Its not a dream. Its not April Fools. A few weeks pass and the near future is sinking in. The COVID-19 virus takes out a wide swath of people, the stock markets crash; governments are slow to respond; supplies run short; people are laid off; small businesses fear losing their life’s investments… on and on…
We are all in various states and stages of shock.
We can believe in 2021 but we don’t know how to bridge. We seek a “New Normal“. For years many people have been discovering that our fearless leaders are not demigods. They are human. Some of them are even quite dysfunctional. There is no heir apparent, no savior has appeared to take us home again.
Many people have died. More will die. We don’t know how many. We wake up in the morning and its like being inside an apocalyptic movie. There can be no spoiler alert. No one knows how this ends. Some people are just going into emotional shock — stunned and confused.
To complicate matters further, Saudi Arabia decides to over-produce oil and crash the world price of oil. Oil consuming nations may welcome this, but who is driving? What factories are open to take advantage of the cost reduction? Oil producing economies like Alberta’s take a cold dive without a breath.
I said that I would be brutally honest. People are talking about how we can ever recover from this bedlam and mayhem. What just happened? Reference points are gone. Fake news goes viral accelerated by foreign leaders’ campaigns designed precisely for that purpose. Fear and self-doubt scatter and weaken the prey and make them easy targets. These age-old military strategies and tactics take on a new face to a generation of idealistic innocents. Grand narcissists have played us with the modern tools and ancient cunning.
We know that different people respond differently under pressure. We know that under stress, people fortunately revert to their natural personal strengths. But as they reach their thresholds of tolerance they lose their senses and powers of reason. Some people are closer to the tipping points than others.
This is a breeding ground for the old “shock and awe” strategy of dominance. As cult leaders groom and prey on those forlorn and in despair, the seekers find solace in a new order, a new normal, that feeds on the innate need for the safety of community. The cult mentality is not without its attraction. It provides an order. There are espoused shared values and beliefs, though the leaders know better.
We may have misjudged the role of cults, religions and political parties. The social psychological patterns are far more similar then different. Cults stand out because they so distinctly and intentionally mark their boundaries, isolating their groups from the general population. Religions provide a moral code while political parties prescribe a legal code. Both provide social and cultural frameworks that enable power-seekers and narcissists to self-actualize.
There is no single right answer. Life everywhere has always been an ongoing experiment. The answers we need are within us — each and everyone of us.
Context Adds Meaning
This pandemic sits on top of global climate change, fears of AI and job displacement, political tribalism, the billionaire break-away class and pop-culture narcissism. We have been struggling with meaningless work, loneliness, disengagement and the loss of community ties. We are distracted and disoriented going into this pandemonium.
In fact, Alvin Toffler pointed out in 1970 that civil complexity is accelerating and the pace of change is growing at a compounded exponential rate. Its all mathematically certain. It follows the laws of network effects and scaling. Toffler told us 50 years ago we had more knowledge, artifacts and people than in the previous 800 years combined. The pace has continued to accelerate.
More than 30 years ago, anthropologist Joseph Tainter pointed out that the best explanation for the collapse of past civilizations was that they ran into diseconomies of scale. They got so complex that they became too expensive to operate. They lost agility and capacity to innovate and repair (more on Babel later). We have seen the same phenomenon of diminishing returns on investment in very large complex corporations and governments – any very large bureaucracy.
We need to hit the proverbial reset button.
“So, Randal, when are you going to get to the good and hopeful part?”
Time to Re-frame
Obviously we start by looking to the past and lessons learned. Many pundits bring up the financial crisis of 2008, 9/11, the fall of the Iron Curtain, etc. They go back to October 1986, 1929 and the 1919 Flu Pandemic for some guidance. They might be better off looking into how all living systems work, and that research is already well advanced in academia. But the academics seem to be pretty silent on the sidelines.
There are similarities and differences among all things. Under our microscopes, nothing is unique or identical. Nature repeats itself and our brains are designed as pattern seekers and replicators. In fact, I believe that we will eventually discover that all of the laws of Nature will be reduced to a single fractal algorithm.
In the 1940s and ’50s a group of international polymaths (Allen Turing, Claude Shannon, Jon von Neuman, Ross Ashby, Jay Forrester, Herbert Simon, Norbert Wiener, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, etc.) concocted a grand theory variously called cybernetics, general systems theory, operations research or management science. In reality it was a theory to explain both intelligence and life itself. It even explained evolution as a learning process with DNA as the storage (memory) medium. Since those early days, smart people added sub-disciplines such as chaos theory, decision theory, game theory and complex adaptive systems.
Unfortunately, cybernetics was seconded to serve the computer, and AI industry and management science was relegated to optimizing manufacturing assembly lines. Few people have heard of general systems theory, devised by Ludwig von Bertalanffy right here at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. The long-forgotten von Bertalanffy, who virtually invented mathematical biology, literally wrote some of the earliest books on the Nature of intelligence (Robots, Men and Minds, 1967).
When in 1960 Thomas Kuhn wrote up the history of science in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions it became apparent that knowledge itself evolves as a cultural phenomenon. The discipline of the sociology of knowledge was born. Later, Dawkins would coin the term ‘meme‘ to capture the role of ideas in cultural and semantic evolution, poetically suggesting a parallel to genes in biological evolution.
These are no trivial academic exercises, unless you want to overlook the intellectual legacy of the 20th century as we reconstruct the 21st. But as Kuhn said in the ’60s, paradigms don’t change until there is a collapse. Over the past 150 years, or maybe going back 500 years in the west, there has been a growing worldview dominated by the success of economics. Through successive disruptive civil introductions of patent protection, incorporation, stock markets, mass production, steam power, fossil fuels, electricity and telecommunications, we have made transformative progress in leaps and bounds. Its hard to argue with that material success.
There have been rumblings on the sidelines. Its the global economy. No. Its the knowledge economy. No. Its the sharing economy. No! Its the new economy. Local economist Mark Anielski has been promoting the idea of an economy that measures gross domestic happiness and aspires to fulfill the well-being.
Personally, I believe a paradigm shift is in order. But perhaps a number of things have to happen in relative synchronicity. We have to put personal happiness and well-being as top priority, but that by itself is not sufficient. We need to think bigger than just the legacy economic systems.
We need to simplify our worldviews. Just as we have all constructed our personal and shared worldviews, we need to deconstruct them to understand how they work and then reconstruct them with a better understanding of how we fit into the Big Picture that is Nature. Reality is not disciplinary.
There is an economy of everything. If we were to reconstruct the ideas of ‘economy’ we should start with our understanding of physics, chemistry, biology, and ecosystems, and understand that human activity is just another layer on top of those layers. Our economy (and all civilization) is a natural emergent property as we — as animals — interact.
Alternatively, think of bird nests, ground-squirrel tunnels and beaver dams as economic infrastructure. Honestly, an alien from another planet would see our lives on this planet as more similar than different, more different in degrees than different in kind.
What makes us most different from other animals is symbolic communication. Culture, while observed in small does in other species is vastly increased with symbolic communication. Culture creates a whole new playing field above the biological.
What we call politics is now being better understood in terms of decision theory and game theory. Our legacy views of left and right, individualist versus collectivist views, are sorely out of date. Life is far more complicated than these simplistic schematics. The tools of management science and optimization are now beginning to be applied in governance, not just of corporations, but in all our living civil systems.
When we put this all together we see a very different landscape. Our worldview is simplified by focusing on the similarities that run throughout civilizations as well as ecosystems, biosphere and the planet s a whole. In fact, the same patterns will be found across the universe.
I believe that we shall prevail. We can score higher or lower on outcomes depending on how we play our cards. If we dig deep and find the rudimentary concepts and principles of how our human civilization – or any civilization – works, then we may find sufficient time to reverse our fortunes.
I believe the best prospects lie in the cluster of related disciplines I will call, for simplicity, “management science“.