insight

Bonnitta Roy

Corona: A Tale of Two Systems. Part Two.

The lock down won’t go on forever. Digital naturalism - using technology to converse with the natural world, and discover a greater intelligence there - offers a life-affirming future.

Society

17.4.2020
In part one I suggested that the covid-19 pandemic should give us pause about how we make sense of ‘the system’ we are part of. 

In our present context it helps to consider two systems; one is fragile and perpetually at risk for catastrophic collapse, run by the government, health care institutions, the global market-based supply chain, and the media broadcast industry. The other is self-organised participation based on pro-social values and collective intelligence; a highly resilient system, grounded in interdependencies and deeper connections with the living world. I introduced three of six suggestions that arise from this reflection: Expand our political-economic imagination, design a global commons in service to life and experience the deeper sources of connection. In this second and final part I consider the other three: Expand circles of trust and concern, reinvent education for the future and pivot to digital naturalism. I end by considering how these proposals might help, to use Nora Bateson’s expression, to “solve everything at once”.

Expand our circles of trust and concern

To give birth to a new era of prosperity we need to grow in two directions. The first is to deepen our sense of interbeing as was discussed in the previous section. This is the depth dimension that traces the deep time of evolutionary history and our shared origins. The other direction is a direction of breadth and embrace. It is a question of expanding our circles of trust and concern to others. This is a requirement because we can’t just build a new future for everyone on top of existing structures where many people are systemically disadvantaged. 
Could we tap into the network that keeps homeless people in contact with each other? These are the questions we would need to be asking.
The new systems we put in place must redress the extreme inequality of wealth and power that exists in society today. Universal access to a global commons will not be enough to do this. We will need to build in a network of peer-to-peer relationships that overlap different groups so as to build bridges between them. Think of it as an extended kinship of mutuality. This work depends upon developing a sense of belonging, meaning, and voice within and among class groups. 
 
Expanding our circles of concern means contacting other small world networks and building the commons up from there. Here we will encounter different ways of connection that may seem foreign to us, or even hard for us to discern among the varieties of human processes of relating. Easier to see are the networks that still sustain small agrarian towns and counties—county fairs, flea markets, and parishes are good places to start. 

Harder to discern, and more challenging to enter, are the informal social networks that connect inner city youth or marginalised people. Could we tap into the network that keeps homeless people in contact with each other? These are the questions we would need to be asking. Young people with activist instincts and innate abilities to lead could be empowered to build this infrastructure of the digital commons across the land. Small internet hubs might be established in local general stores, cafes, or post offices. A hub could be introduced by having one computer and a large screen and call it a movie house and community center. Schools are ideal locations. But of course, the education system is itself in dire need of overhaul.

“Expanding our circles of concern means contacting other small world networks and building the commons up from there."

Reinvent education for the future

The term “educare” means to bring for potential. This potential exists in the future self, the student who will be born in a world so different from yours, you might as well consider them from the future. From this perspective, the adult teacher lives in the past, speaks from the past, and excavates past knowledge that is less relevant to the student than ever before. We need to reinvent education so it speaks for the future. This would require a shift to a transformational philosophy of education, which I am currently working on in collaboration with Perspectiva.

 A transformational philosophy of education sees human growth not in terms of age-appropriate stages of linear development, but as a multi-layered, holistic process of the ongoing metamorphosis of the self. Neuropsychology has discovered that the self is a layered composition of interdependent processes. Damasio, for example, identifies the core self and the extended self. We commonly speak of internal working models of the self. We also think of a “spiritual” self. A transformational philosophy of education seeks to bring forth the potential of full spectra of the self: the core self, the communal self, the cosmopolitan self, and the creative or psychedelic self.  This is not a stage-like model, for each self is a transformational state of the human, bearing new potentials and revealing new worlds. Although they come on line at different temporal stages after birth (communal self ~ 36 months; cosmopolitan self  ~ 9 years; creative self ~ 12 years) each self develops and matures across the entire lifespan.
 
A transformational philosophy of education would also address the transformational processes of the society. This means that transformation is seen as not only a given, and certainly not something to resist. Rather societal transformation is seen as overarchingly positive. This again, is not the same as social development or progress, which is linear and tends toward acceleration along a single path. Transformation is the regeneration of states of being along trajectories that are not predictable. They are emergent change. 
The first steps would be to rebuild communities as early childhood “village learning” centres. Entire communities could be transformed along with the educational system.
 A transformational philosophy of education would focus on who we are as world-building humans, a species that builds new worlds for our children to enter. This would require multi-generational transmission—learning and cross-fertilising stories and skills, wisdom and experiments from all sectors of life. This means education would empower young people to lead. To be self-leaders, servant leaders, and leaders of social change. It would place real-life experience, collaborative projects and results-based community service at the heart of school life. 

Special work-to-college programs could be initiated where students who served their communities in services related to food production and safety, environmental restoration, health and elderly care, or education and literacy, would earn free college credits. This would teach them valuable skills, give them a sense of meaning and purpose and impact, better prepare them to have a context in which to attend college, and contribute to the larger goals of the society, by unleashing an exuberant work force on critical needs of the social fabric.

But how would a society pull this off? There is an alternative. A society can have two parallel education paths at the same time. There would be the “alpha” path, which is the conventional institutional structures and programs that are currently maintained by policy makers. Then there could be a “beta” path, rolled out over time. Zak Stein envisions this new structure as a “hub-and-network” structure. Small, perhaps overlooked communities, such as the high-school Gershman did her study on, could be selected to function as hubs that would anchor the beta path in places in many states across the country. Particularly interesting would be to choose communities that are already involved in public-private partnerships, such as the communities served by the various Centres for Resilient Communities — programs that are already embedded in several universities in the US: Idaho, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

“But how would a society pull this off? There is an alternative. A society can have two parallel education paths at the same time."

Rather than a policy-reform approach, the idea here is to envision the beta-path project as a nation-scale infrastructure development project rolled out over time. The idea is to think of the beta-path project as similar to Roosevelt’s $5 billion interstate highway system. Investment in the hub-cities would be associated with rural revitalisation and downtown development. The first steps would be to rebuild communities as early childhood “village learning” centres. Entire communities could be transformed along with the educational system. This would appeal to educators and developers alike. Companies such as Google could be invited in to set-up powerful internet capabilities, essentially connecting all the learning hubs as one powerful network. Children could spend more time online with their communities of learning, even when at home, and less time online in harmful or addictive, and consumer-data driven sites.

This approach would require inventive, creative, disruptive design thinking. Consider for example, a learning environment designed for the unfolding core self. I am imagining pattern-design thinking along the lines of Christopher Alexander. The approach would not be to destroy the town to raise a village, but to revitalise the community to raise a learning village for families. Existing housing and storefronts, especially in communities where the neighbourhoods grew organically, prior to urban planning and mall-sprawl, would be renovated into places of learning. Buildings that needed to be taken down, sit on lots that could be changed into gardens and parks. Existing houses could be turned into “school houses” — each designed for different areas of the curriculum, or specialised areas of learning. Malls could be stripped bare and transformed into gymnasiums, with pop-up classrooms modelled on Apple stores or Google campuses. Local cafes would be turned into “school eateries” and the Library would take back a central function in the community.

Everyday outings would trace a learning cycle, embedded in a larger curriculum. A local economy, backed by local currency “school coupons” would supplant the need for daily monetary exchange, but have the ability to track resource flows. A typical day “in class” would have the same sensorimotor stimulation of a typical day sauntering through a village, participating in the vibrant life of “well-placed” community, grounding the children in both a sense of belonging and place. 
New generations are born in the new world of digital information, communication, and creativity. It is an experience of co-creative emergence.
The “signalling” happening here is that ordinary life and community are the places that afford learning, and freedom to move around and explore with friends and mentors are the best practices of education. It would “signal” that intersubjective exchange is not transactional, and there is no debt associated with the giving of one’s talents or the receiving of others’ gifts. It would be implicitly telling children a story of free participation in a community of meaning and practice.

The sense of place and the kinds of affordances it offers, is a crucial aspect of transformational education. Something like a gymnasium, where children developed civic and community skills, along with specialisation and mastery of individual talents, along the lines of the Nordic model of Bildung, would best support the emerging communal self. Another kind of place, call it the possibility space, would suit the unfolding potential of the cosmopolitan self; and a radically “futuristic” environment, perhaps designed by the students themselves, with experiments in governance, information and communications could take place.  All of this is happening in small ways around the world as people add vitality back into their educational approach. 

Pivot to digital naturalism

“Today we are moving in the direction where people are positioned downstream from AI."

New generations are born in the new world of digital information, communication, and creativity. It is an experience of co-creative emergence, as the world they are discovering and participating with, arises only through their discovery and participation. The digital world is problematised by the notion of supervenience. We tend to think of the digital cloud as above or on top of—supervening on—the natural world. This is the direction of total annihilation of the human being, and leads to post-organic forms of complexity, where organisms, including humans, become adjunct to, and potentially power-sources of, the digital, virtual, artificial intelligences that they are supervenient to them. 

This is certainly not a trivial concern. Today we are moving in the direction where people are positioned downstream from AI. Our news and political discourse have also been disrupted by AI and their algorithms, the political landscape is in disarray, and social norms are breaking apart. Although people have always worked “upstream” from the machines, if the trajectory continues, people may one day be schooled in how to function “downstream from the algorithms, which will search, filter, select, evaluate and adjudicate decisions for them. This is already the case with financial decisions and a key design challenge for autonomous vehicles. AI systems such as blockchain are being developed to displace human-centred governance, retail complaints are adjudicated by algorithms, and consumer choices are intermediated by bots. Projects are well underway for autonomous surveillance systems and the autonomous weapons they control to displace law enforcement, and for judges and juries to be replaced by data-crunching, lie-detecting, machines who, it will be argued, will have the advantage of being void of personal bias and human error. We will also be schooled by the algorithms. 
Digital naturalism—using technology to converse with the natural world, and discover a greater intelligence there—represents a vital, valuable and life-affirming future. 
Here, though, we have a choice. We can pivot toward a new relationship between digital information, communication and creativity, that supports not only our humanity, but amplifies and deepens our connection with the natural, living world. For example, smart technology can detect communications patterns in the living world—giving us the potential to communicate with them. While we are entertained by the possibility of communicating with aliens from other planets, we are conditioned to think of the life forms on this planet as having little or nothing to say. This is a failure not only of our imagination, but it is a knowing that has been lost to modern people. 

Digital naturalism—using technology to converse with the natural world, and discover a greater intelligence there—represents a vital, valuable and life-affirming future. We will learn how to protect the earth, and support the flourishing of all life. Unlike the other ten items in my countdown, digital naturalism is not yet created. It is something that must be sourced from the deeper meanings of our co-evolutionary history with the earth and her living processes. It represents the possibility of integrating ancient wisdom with future aspirations. Instead of a flight from our sacred origins, it would be a return to, in a way that we could experience our origins not as an abstract story or a theory, but experience them directly, as they speak in the present moment. 

The architect Christopher Alexander, saw the promise that the digital generations had to generate a living world. He also worried, rightly so, about the choices that would be made. Speaking to the OOPSLA convention in 1996 he described the choices that would be faced. It is a significant enough statement to reproduce here in full as it predicts the emergence of digital naturalism two decades ahead of his time:

I want you to realise that that problem of generating living structure is not being handled well by architectural planners or developers or construction people now, and the Earth is suffering because of it. I believe there may be no way that they are ever going to actually be able to do it, because the methods they use are not capable of it. For you it is different. The idea of generative process is natural to you. It forms the core of the computer science field. The methods that you have at your fingertips and deal with everyday in the normal course of software design are perfectly designed to do this. So, if only you have the interest, you do have the capacity and you do have the means.

“Digital naturalism—using technology to converse with the natural world, and discover a greater intelligence there—represents a vital, valuable and life-affirming future."

I heard a rumour at breakfast that some of the people in this room have begun to worry about their jobs. I have no idea if that is true. But I was told there is an undercurrent of unease as to where all this—software design—is going. There is a huge expanding phenomenon of programming as an art, and yet an uneasiness about where it is all headed? What is it going to do?

My comment on this? Please forgive me, I'm going to be very direct and blunt for a horrible second. It could be thought that the technical way in which you currently look at programming is almost as if you were willing to be “guns for hire." In other words, you are the technicians. You know how to make the programs work. “Tell us what to do daddy, and we'll do it." That is the worm in the apple.

What I am proposing here is something a little bit different from that. It is a view of programming as the natural genetic infrastructure of a living world which you/we are capable of creating, managing, making available, and which could then have the result that a living structure in our towns, houses, work places, cities, becomes an attainable thing. That would be remarkable. It would turn the world around, and make living structure the norm once again, throughout society, and make the world worth living in again.
We chose to go to the moon, to step on a dead planet, to revitalise the nation. We chose to dissent, to heal and repair, to dream of a new prosperity.
This is an extraordinary vision of the future, in which computers play a fundamental role in making the world—and above all the built structure of the world—alive, humane, ecologically profound, and with a deep living structure. I realise that you may be surprised by my conclusion. This is not what I am, technically, supposed to have been talking about to you. Or you may say, Well, great idea, but we're not interested. I hope that is not your reaction. I hope that all of you, as members of a great profession of the future, will decide to help me, and to help yourselves, by taking part in this enormous world-wide effort. I do think you are capable of it. And I do not think any other professional body has quite the ability, or the natural opportunity for influence, to do this job as it must be done.

Dreams of prosperity

The six proposals above are not randomly selected. I have drawn them from people and practices that are already significantly in play, but not yet upregulated into the popular mindset. There are many people today—more than a hundred, most likely a thousand—who already have the breadth of vision and the depth of thought to implement every one of these ideas. Just as JFK told us that it was indeed possible to go to the moon, when all we needed to do was choose it:

“Digital naturalism offers a new generation a completely new economy beyond digital information systems."

But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon...We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too. 

The prosperity of those times—the economic gains—that enabled us to go to the moon, were transposed on top of a society that was undergoing crisis—racial violence, cold war tensions, and eventually the Vietnam war and Water gate. We chose to go to the moon, to step on a dead planet, to revitalise the nation. We chose to dissent, to heal and repair, to dream of a new prosperity. It would be our last period of prosperity up until now, since those gains and that idealism has been depleted. 
 
 I want to choose a new era of prosperity, of humans flourishing on a thriving planet.  I want to place my feet on the earth for the first time, and be in awe of her beauty, her bounty and our purpose in her story of life.  I want to choose terrestrial life, to choose human community, to choose the company of plants, and animals, of clouds and sun and rain, of oceans and mountains and rivers and forests and meadows. I want to be in right relationship with bodies, with hearts, with minds, and with viruses too! What do these relationships have to say? What can we learn? How can we grow toward a greater kinship with all creation? 
The lock down won’t go on forever, and the human population is likely to surge as a result. 
These six steps I have outlined are not really steps in the ordinary sense of the word. Rather they are complementary processes that catalyse each other. They describe a holistic set of capacities that have the potential to reset the entire social domain. In complex terms, they comprise an autopoietic set of mutually catalytic processes, when implemented together, might, to use Nora Bateson’s expression, solve everything all at once. 

There is little possibility in the mind of the fearful, and limited perspectives can lead to dangerous outcomes, so this ambition is the possibility I want to celebrate in this moment – at an historical moment in time. The lock down won’t go on forever, and the human population is likely to surge as a result. 

You might be thinking “but where are the jobs and the medicare for all and the free college and green energy, environmental regulations and new jobs?” That kind of thinking is too fragmented for the change we need. It is stitched together for political purposes. From this perspective we see that political platforms on both sides are merely “work arounds” that cannot address the systems-level change necessary to make their claims possible. 

“Crises push people in one direction or the other, so we need to help each other move from contraction, cognitive shut-down and moral dread, to expansion, collective insight and moral courage."

By contrast, my proposals work together on the systems level that all the particular needs are encased in. The needs are solved as a natural consequence of people participating in change at the adequate level.  A citizens’ currency would reduce the costs of healthcare and give us food security, helping both the education system and the labor force. Education reform would mean more health care workers, especially for under served populations, and empower more people over their own bodies and well being.  Education reform would also create jobs for youth, revitalise rural towns, reduce the costs of higher education, and trim the fat from the university system, while giving working students access to the best schools, arguably, when they are best able to make the most of it. 

Reimagining the global commons and our connection with the living earth fuels the imagination of innovators everywhere to heal the earth and to build technology that will help the planetary system thrive. Digital naturalism offers a new generation a completely new economy beyond digital information systems, and into a future where the human noosphere, supported by smart machines, returns to its planetary origins, and finds peace there—in the presence of wild things.

Expansive perspectives give us larger visions. Crises push people in one direction or the other, so we need to help each other move from contraction, cognitive shut-down and moral dread, to expansion, collective insight and moral courage.  By staying together, in deeper communion, in parliament with the trouble, we can disclose this moment as screaming with possibilities. All we need to do is choose. I choose for freedom, for possibility, and for life. 

Choices come down to actions, and actions change the world. What choices will you make? What actions will you take? What stories are waiting to be born? What new worlds are wanting to be created? What new people are we wanting to become? 


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