The old fellow in the corner of the Fog Island Tavern had been sitting there, quietly, for several hours. At first, the regulars at the bar had been looking at him, saying a few words signaling that he’d be welcome at the counter; they were curious: A new neighbor on the island, having bought a house from one of the just-weekend-owners who had given up on the demands of island life? Or just another visitor? But he hadn’t responded, just ordered another glass of wine, off-and-on scribbling in a little notebook in-between periods of merely looking around with a kind of vacant far-away stare. Thinking? Hmm.
But suddenly he came up to the bar, eyes blazing, arms held wide in a gesture of exasperation, calling out from ten feet away: “What are you doing!?”
“Huh? What are we doing?” One of the fellows asked. “Just sitting here shooting the breeze. What’s it to you?”
“I heard it!” He gasped. “And you guys just shrugged and went back to bitching about the weather and how bad things are and how corrupt the government is and how the president, or his predecessor are the worst president ever, and…”
“Heard what?” Vodçek asked, the tavern owner behind the counter. “Well, don’t you agree that things are not as they ought to be?”
“Heard what? Didn’t this gentleman here –” he pointed at Renfroe, who seemed taken aback for having said something significant enough to evoke such attention — “just tell you about this thirteen-point plan or agenda that could change everything? And pooh-poohed it as just another of the crazy schemes of this Abbe something he was ridiculing?”
“Well, I guess you haven’t met or heard about Abbé Boulah and his overactive imagination and inventiveness. But the story ol’ Renfroe here was relating, he had just heard it from Abbé Boulah, not sure who came up with it originally. What about it?” Bog-Hubert tried to calm both of them down.
“And you guys didn’t recognize it for the ray of hope it is, finally, and went right back to blah-blah about the weather and the mess we’re in?!”
“Well, yeah, I guess we did. Out here, weather is kind’a the first thing we worry about getting up in the morning, and we don’t have any big hopes about being able to change the course of history any more than the weather, you know what I mean? But what’s so important about that thirteen-point scheme?”
“It’s the way we should go about meeting all those crises everybody keeps talking about. But I guess the way it sounded was still too dry, not inspiring enough to get people to get off their lazy butts… I guess it didn’t tell you what you actually can do – even out here!”
“Oh, I guess that calls for some explanation, my friend. Why don’t you join us – Vodçek, what’s he drinking? Could you get him a glass, on me? Thanks — And try to enlighten us some?”
“Enlighten: I’m not sure I’m the one for that job. But – thanks for the wine – where do you get that great Zinfandel out here? – that pamphlet or whatever it was, don’t you see how it opens up a great opportunity? For you, for all of us, for the world?”
“Opportunity? How so? Opportunity for what?”
“Okay, good question. Let me backtrack a little. You realize, don’t you, that this country and many others, all of us, are not only facing all these big problems we got ourselves into, out of idealism and greed and over-eagerness and foolishness. But for the first time in history, we also have these terrific new tools — technology for communication, for collecting and making the history and experiences and wisdom and errors of all the people in the world accessible – to learn from it, — learn, you hear me? learn! — and to work together to develop better ways of living together on this planet?”
“If you put it that way…”
“Right. Most of the time, it isn’t put that way, but perceived and presented as tools for the old ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude, meaning the strongest, biggest, richest, the ones with the faster guns’ game, beating out all the weaker ones. Greatness of a nation, whatever than means, beyond the residents of a plot of earth surface within some arbitrary borders, seen as the ability to tell other nations what to do and not to do, and if they don’t, bomb-em back to the stone age… – Heavens, what a narrow kind of perspective!”
“So what should that perspective be, in your opinion? If greatness is what it’s about? Some of us just want to be left in peace and go fishing…”
“Well, start with that idea in your declaration of independence and in most modern constitutions, in one form or another: people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Is it enough for a ‘great’ community to make sure that all its members ‘have’ that right? Like: You ‘have’ the right to become the greatest race-car driver, the greatest opera singer or the funniest circus clown? Even just reputable amateur fishermen? But what do you do if there are no race tracks, no races, no operas being performed, no circus? And no teachers to help you get those skills? No fish in the ocean? Your ‘right’ doesn’t count for much then, eh?
“Hmm. I see. But…”
“What you need to acknowledge is this: For all your individual responsibility, there are some conditions for taking advantage of your ‘rights’ that don’t depend on the individual: they must be present in a person’s environment.”
“So how does that apply to a nation, a community?”
“I assume you’d say that a society, through its government, should make sure that a person can go about such pursuits in peace, free to do so, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s right to go about their pursuits?”
“Sure Sound about right.”
“But wouldn’t you also say a society that can offer more appealing opportunities for such pursuits, more interesting, noble, challenging as well as enjoyable opportunities, would be better – even ‘greater’ if you prefer that word – than one that just declares that you have all kinds of rights that you can’t take advantage of because the conditions for pursuing them aren’t there?”
“I get it: you say that a great society is one that offers great opportunities – and the right as well as conditions enabling all its members to pursue them?”
“Yes. And the opportunity to create new opportunities, new and more interesting ways to live.”
“Okay. So what does that have to do with that thirteen-point statement Renfroe was talking about? Wasn’t it aimed at how we might deal with all the crises and challenges that are beginning to threaten humanity’s survival? What got you all excited about that?”
“Good question – getting back to that one. See, the traditional assumption about threats and challenges to a society was that its government should be set up to organize its ‘defenses’ — that is, it would maintain some institutions made up of people willing and able to use force against any ‘enemy’ threatening it. Military and police ‘forces’. Remember that notion: ‘enemy’: it was an assumption that an ‘enemy’ was some other society or group of people.”
“Right. Interior or exterior. Like it says in the pledge of allegiance.”
“Yes. I’ll come back to that enemy notion in a minute. Now, these institutions were organized, we have to assume with good reason, according to rigid hierarchical principles. The top guys, the generals, the commander-in-chief giving commands and the lower ranks carrying them out.”
“Of course: don’t you have to make sure that the regiments and platoons are all following a coherent defense plan (or attack, if they adhered to the idea that the best defense is an attack) and aren’t marching in the wrong direction ending up attacking each other?”
“Sure: it made sense to the people. If they had a say in the matter. So much so that the other governance institutions were organized according to similar hierarchical principles and command structures. Yes, yes, I know what you are going to say: we have elections that determine who the folks in our governance systems are going to be, to make sure they are ‘defending’ our interests and not their own. Which history teaches us is a real temptation if you give people too much power. Wasn’t that what you were going to say?”
“Something like that, yes.”
“Well. That pamphlet said something about the voting systems – that it didn’t exactly ensure that all of our interests and concerns would be ‘defended’, just those of the ‘majority’. So that seems to be one of the issues that we need to look into.”
“Are you questioning the idea of our democratic system? Do you have anything better up your sleeve?”
“Don’t get excited. You’re reading the papers about how it’s working, are you? Can we do better than that? I sure hope so. But we are getting ahead of things here. The crises and emergencies we are starting to worry about more these days: who’s the enemy?”
“Okay, are you going to try to defeat Nature with your drones and smart bombs and aircraft carriers? But isn’t it rather that Nature is starting to react against what WE are doing to it, out of ignorance and greed and foolishness? And what WE are doing to each other and ourselves? You’ve heard it as a joke, but the joke really is on us: the enemy is US. What we are beginning to discover is that the way we are doing things – in business, in governance, defense against crises and ‘enemies’ and in our private lives – doesn’t quite work the way it’s supposed to work anymore: we need to start thinking about doing all that differently.”
“Oh yeah: A ‘new system’, eh? We keep hearing that, yes. To tell you the truth: I’m beginning to get tired of all that talk: It seems that all they want is just power to do things ‘their’ way. Not for all of us…”
“I don’t blame you: I often feel the same way. Now, doesn’t it seem that WE – humanity — don’t have a really good idea about what that ‘new system’ should be? Do you, do WE know what works and what doesn’t work? I don’t. Look at all the different ideas about that out there: many of them are so different that people are beginning to fight each other over their preferred new system visions. We are all becoming ‘interior enemies’ to each other. So as far as I can see, there’s not much hope that we can come to meaningful agreements about that unified great new system – whether it is for a city, a nation, of the global human community.”
“You are becoming a bit of a depressing spoilsport yourself here, with all these dismal issues getting in the way of enjoying our drinks and conversation.”
“So sorry. But that isn’t my point at all: The ideas and points in that pamphlet: weren’t they actually beginning to provide some encouraging answers, if you think about it? But from my point there in the corner, it looked like you didn’t see that, or didn’t want to think about it – or knew things I don’t see why it wouldn’t work, and had some better ideas already.”
“So you think those thirteen points are some kind of solution? Come on…”
“I think that the first meaningful step is that they acknowledge that none of us have THE answer, THE solution. We don’t know enough. We need to examine different ideas, — not only the new ideas but older traditions in various human cultures: what did they know that we have forgotten? Human societies have tried many different ‘systems’: What went wrong, what worked? We tried a few major ones, they didn’t work too well, it seems. So we need experiments and analysis — all those ideas and initiatives at small scale that many people see as nuisance: we need to support them and get them to share their experience, for comparison and discussion, the results to be fed into a shared common discourse and evaluation framework.”
“I was a bit worried about that grand framework or platform: Sounded like that might just be another Big Brother kind of system?”
“Sure, if it were run as a traditional top-down hierarchical structure with insufficient controls of power. Power that would be likely to overrule legitimate concerns of how decisions would affect different people in the community; we have good reason to be suspicious of such a system especially if it gets to global scale. But didn’t that platform have some ideas for different ways of avoiding those problems? For one, it would only aim at a few overall agreements to ensure that all those small initiatives – and of course existing entities such as nations – wouldn’t get in each other’s way. And if it’s done right, with the new technology and media, it should be open to everybody’s input and participation. Isn’t that a totally new and glorious opportunity for humanity – one that we are just beginning to take advantage of?”
“Yes – and not all in very promising ways…”
“I think I see what you mean: the chaotic avalanche of opinions, repetitions, fake news, rumors and meaningless or malicious chatter on social media – it all looks like a new disaster more than a solution to you? Yes. But we haven’t worked out the needed procedures for the use of these tools in a planning and policy-making platform yet. A process that tries to ensure a better, transparent connection between the value and merit of people’s contributions to the discourse and the eventual decisions. That was what the proposal in that pamphlet was promising, wasn’t it? So shouldn’t that be something to talk about, discuss, evaluate, to try out, to see if it works?”
“Well, from the way Renfroe talked about it, I didn’t really get the idea that there were actual solutions worked out, that it was more than just wishful thinking. You agree, Vodçek?”
“No, Sophie, sorry. Coming to think about it, didn’t we actually discuss a number of what I’d call some missing pieces for that big platform, here in this lowly Tavern? Remember the stories about assessing the merit of planning arguments, about evaluation, about incentive points for contributions, and how they could be used for various purposes, even to control power with different, nonviolent tools?”
“Are you saying that those discussions had anything to do with that pamphlet and its platform proposals and issues? Is there a conspiracy afoot?”
“It looks that way. Where did you say Abbé Boulah got that pamphlet, Renfroe?”
“He didn’t really say, Bog-Hubert: now that I think about it. It could just be something he cooked up with his buddy up in town… So you think we’ve all been working on that stuff all along? And they just wrote it up?”
“Well, wherever you got it: It sure sounds like a great opportunity. Think about it: As a way to deal with all the problems, let’s use people’s need and desire to do their own thing, to make a difference in their lives, let them work on may different ideas, support them, preferably in places and ways that doesn’t put them in direct competition with the existing systems right away. Let’s use our technology to get them talking to each other in more productive ways, to learn, to evaluate the different approaches to find out what ideas we should adopt and which ones we shouldn’t. All the while contributing our insights to reach some needed global decisions that we can all support because we all were contributing to them and working them out? Is that something to support and work for? What are you guys doing with all the interesting ideas you’ve been working on?”
“So what do you think we ought to do?”
“At least keep talking about it, connect the different parts. To begin with.
“Let’s see that pamphlet again. Do you still have it, Renfroe?”
‘Here it is, a bit crumpled, sorry.”
The following notes are a response to various requests to join efforts to develop and implement a ‘new system’ or a new platform for assembling knowledge about the best practices and techniques for such a new system.
From the huge LinkedIn discussion of Systems Thinking World (STW) participants trying to come up with an answer to Ban Ki Moon’s 2011 Davos call for ‘revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival’, some things could be learned and summarized, briefly, that can serve as a kind of guideline or agenda for the needed efforts:
1. There are already countless initiatives for alternative ways to do things underway, or proposed.
2.To the extent these initiatives communicate with others and the public, they tend to advertise successes and articles of faith for their ideas, less on obstacles and errors.
3. There is widespread sentiment that ‘something should be done’, but no agreement about a common ‘global’ model, and considerable resistance against calls to join this or that cause. As a global community, we do not yet know enough about what works and what does not work, to embark on a cooperative global course or action or model.
4. Therefore, it seems that the many partial (i.e. ‘non-global’ or ‘local’) initiatives and experiments should be encouraged and supported rather than merged into one overall model. This should be accepted as a ‘global’ policy. To draw not only on human desire for cooperation but also on the human desire (of many among us) to ‘make a difference’ in our communities.
5. For such initiatives, support could take the form of devoting part of the usual humanitarian aid for recovery from natural or human-caused disasters to the establishment of ‘innovation zones’ in areas where ‘old’ infrastructure and governance systems have been destroyed. Support should be contingent upon honest reporting of successes and failure into a global forum for evaluation.
6. There is a need for discussion and negotiation of global agreements and decisions (conventions to permit the various initiatives but ensuring that they don’t get in each others’ way or endanger the whole).
7. Decisions should based on the merit of the best of available knowledge and information (much of which is ‘distributed’ and different according to local context conditions), rather than on majority voting which is not applicable to populations extending across conventional governance borders, and explicitly allows disregard of the concerns of the losing minority.
8. There is currently no coherent set of procedures for such discourse and negotiation that includes explicit determination of the merit of discourse contributions, though ideas and proposals have been made.
9. There would be a need for both bringing ‘existing’ (documented and past) knowledge and research as well as ad-hoc investigation to bear on such a better orchestrated discourse, through appropriate information systems structured according to appropriate models of planning and policy-making processes.
10. There is currently no platform for a truly cooperative and coherent platform to support such a discourse.
11. There are currently no sufficient incentives for many citizens to participate in such public discourse — overcoming the perceived ‘cost’ and effort of participating and the sense that their contributions ‘do not really count’.
12. There would be a great need for educating a global public in the practice of participation on a better orchestrated discourse.
13. There is currently no effective set of ‘sanctions’ to ensure adherence to agreements, other than ‘enforcement’ measures implying coercion violence, by ‘enforcement’ powers which human history tells us are vulnerable to the temptation to abuse that power, and that arguably exacerbate problems and conflicts rather than solving them to mutual satisfaction. New tools for the control of power are needed.
These insights together indicate at least a significant part of the immense agenda for a meaningful global effort to ensure a ‘model for survival’, which however may not be the ‘unified’ global model many envision. The specific technological innovation needs as well as the part of ‘education’ that aim at engendering the change in ‘awareness’ and ethics needed to support such a movement: (parts of item 4?) have been left out as already widely propagated.
The well-intended effort to develop a repository of human memory as an important support of the discourse is part of item 9 of that agenda. Given the many already existing repositories, the focus should be on the issue of how to channel their content on the specific aspects of the discourse, e.g. with information systems or search instruments organized by the discourse elements (issues) rather than knowledge domains.
There has been work on the concept as well as the missing parts of the overall discourse support system, item 10, specifically on items 7, 8, looking at aspects of item 11 and 13 that could be improved by ‘collateral’ information from item 7 (merit of arguments). Some thoughts on a discourse game as one possible tool for item 12 have been put forward. A main ‘systems thinking’ task in all this, is that of tying the various parts of the agenda into a mutually supporting whole network. The systems thinking efforts we currently see are not addressing the ‘argumentative’ aspect of the planning discourse; efforts have been made to bring the argumentative aspect into systems modeling and/ or vice versa. There is a danger in the well-intended temptation of bringing more AI tools to bear on the planning discourse (part of item 9) — the need to rely on ‘consistent’ information to reach valid inference seems to be somewhat at odds with the essence of the ‘contradictory’ pros and cons of planning arguments.
Work is needed on some of these aspects; different provisions should be tried out in smaller experiments; but the main and immediate need for even carrying the development work forward is that of development of the programming integrating the several functions of a fully supportive platform for the planning and policy-making discourse.